[LINK] Stil Twittering Away Time

Roger Clarke Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au
Mon Sep 19 16:39:57 AEST 2011

[Here's a useful distillation of the spirit of twitterdom.  (Sorry).

[A couple of comments embedded and at the end.

Trends on Twitter brief but telling, just like in the real world
September 19 2011
The Sydney Morning Herald

Trends in the hyper-paced world of Twitter make the catwalks of Milan 
look positively passe. Most don't last half an hour.

But they do provide an insight into what the world is talking about 
and, for some, they're serious business - even if they only reflect 
the obsessions of a tapped-in slice of society and have been known to 
be manipulated in support of a dirty joke.

Twitter lists the 10 most-tweeted subjects on their website as 
''Trending Topics''. For marketers, that's prime real estate. If you 
can get your topic '''to trend'', for a short time you'll cut through 
the cacophony of tweets and put your message in front of 100 million 
active Twitter users - 5 per cent of the online population, but some 
of the most connected.

For everyone else, it's a fascinating display of human nature, the 
warts-and-all reality of what catches people's attention - but 
something that probably shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Twitter trending isn't just about popularity, otherwise everyday 
subjects such as the weather and late-running CityRail trains would 
trend forever. Instead, it's about topics that become suddenly 
popular. The faster more people tweet about something, the more it 

You can blame Justin Bieber for that. During the first half of last 
year about 3 per cent of all tweets were Bieber fans talking about 
their idol. To avert a permanent Biebertrend, Twitter switched the 
focus to traffic ''spikes''.

Any sudden news event, or any widely-shared experience, is almost 
guaranteed to trend, as are the names of the people involved.

Natural disasters, sports matches, celebrities in the news - 
especially their deaths - newly-released films and books and anything 
made by Apple. But there can be surprises, such as ''vuvuzela'' last 
year because so many people complained about them, or ''Laurel-Ann 
Hardie'', because people debated whether the woman's name was real 
[it is].

Trending topics are often hashtags, Twitter's system for tagging 
tweets with a keyword, because the hashtag is the only word common to 
all tweets on a topic - such as #eqnz for the New Zealand earthquake 
in Christchurch.

Hashtags often trend when they're used for fun, like when people 
suggest #oneletteroffmovies such as Apocalypse Cow.

Or, when they're angry, like the US political hashtag 
#f**kyouwashington. Or, when they're completely tasteless, like 
#thingsdarkiessay, which supposedly started as an insiders joke in 
South Africa but was obviously offensive.

Depressingly, for those of us who live online, many trending topics 
are about TV programs. Indeed, live TV has now become a shared 
experience as the home audience discusses the program via Twitter. 
You can even see the names of individual contestants in shows such as 
American Idol trend in sequence as they appear on screen.

Members of hacktivist group Anonymous have been so disturbed by the 
prevalence of pop culture trending topics that they've created 
software called URGE, the Universal Rapid Gamma Emitter [Twitter 
edition]. ''This is not a hacking tool nor is it an exploit tool,'' 
they stress. URGE allows you to select an undesirable low-brow 
hashtag, such as #jerseyshore, and automatically send large numbers 
of tweets using that hashtag, but with more illuminating content. 
That's called hashtag hijacking, and Twitter frowns upon it because 
it's essentially spam.

[But surely the program is as sentient as most of the other posters ...]

Also frowned upon is sending lots of tweets with the same hashtag but 
little relevant content in an attempt to get your topic to trend, and 
tweeting about every trending topic in sight in an attempt to draw 
attention to yourself.

A more legitimate method for getting topics to trend is to persuade 
Twitter's ''influencers'' - users with large numbers of followers who 
tweet regularly - to broadcast your message. Web services such as 
Klout claim to measure your online influence.

But it's rubbish. Researchers at Hewlett-Packard's social computing 
lab analysed Twitter's trending topics and discovered that user 
activity and number of followers don't have much effect on how trends 
are created and spread. Trending content often originates from 
traditional media sources, and is then repeated around Twitter.

''We find that the resonance of the content with the users of the 
social network plays a major role in causing trends,'' they wrote.

[Um, do we have a little bit of circularity here?  Presumably 
'resonance' is measured ex post facto, i.e. if lots of people 
twittered, then it must have captured the zeitgeist?]

Trends take off almost at random, simply because they started when 
people happened to be in the right mood. A light-hearted topic is 
unlikely to trend if the day's news is about a terrorist attack.

Or, conversely, a ridiculous topic might trend simply because it 
spread faster than a more serious one.

Yahoo! researcher Duncan Watts warned markets off wasting their money 
on social media influencers in 2006 for these same reasons. It's too 
unpredictable. Buy TV and newspaper advertising instead, he suggested.

I demonstrated this myself in 2009 when, for a laugh, I caused a 
certain sexual practice, that I won't name in a family newspaper, to 
become the number one trending topic globally in less than an hour, 
simply by asking people to use a smutty hashtag.

A boring Saturday night, a longstanding tradition of Aussie 
disrespect and the sleaze factor created a perfect storm that night, 
but a similar attempt a week later failed.

That particular experiment couldn't be repeated today. The surge of 
sleazy tweets would still count as a post-Bieber traffic spike, but 
Twitter now filters its trends for profanity.

HP's researchers reckon few trends stay at the top for more than 40 
minutes. Indeed, trends are usually so short-lived that you can see 
them repeated hourly as the TV programs that triggered them followed 
the time zones.

The only reliable way to get a topic to trend is to pay Twitter for a 
''Promoted Trend''. But how tacky is that?

Stilgherrian is a writer, broadcaster and prolific Twitter user with 
6175 followers. He changed his name by deed poll and does not have a 
surname. Twitter: @stilgherrian.

[No he didn't.
[He changed his name.
[And he then executed a deep poll in order to provide documentary 
evidence of the name-change of a nature that will satisfy 

[And what a pity readers can't email the bloke ...

Roger Clarke                                 http://www.rogerclarke.com/

Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd      78 Sidaway St, Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
                    Tel: +61 2 6288 1472, and 6288 6916
mailto:Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au                http://www.xamax.com.au/

Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre      Uni of NSW
Visiting Professor in Computer Science    Australian National University

More information about the Link mailing list