People love to hate the site’s “What’s happening” tab. Why won’t the company just let it go?
#NoPawsLeftBehind. Last Tuesday, I glanced at the “What’s happening” sidebar on Twitter and saw that nearly 32,000 people were tweeting about this topic; therefore, it was “trending.” A description of the trend, presented just beneath the hashtag, explained that it was “commemorating the service dogs left behind following the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan.”
Clicking through the hashtag, I found a slightly more irritating story. Earlier that day, the alt-right personality Jack Posobiec had tweeted, “Today I am launching the #NoPawsLeftBehind Campaign,” and asked people to post photos of their dogs “in solidarity with the service dogs left behind in Afghanistan.” “Use the hashtag,” he wrote. “Let’s get it trending.” Of course, random people obliged, because random people like nothing more than to tweet blurry pictures of their pets with captions such as “Mocha and Macey sending prayers of comfort and safety to those brave service dogs!” A Twitter user called Cheesesteak, whose bio says he owns four cats, shared a picture of a dog with a soldier and wrote, “There is NO CREATURE on this EARTH who is more NOBEL and has MORE HONOR and we ABANDONED THEM TO OUR NATIONAL SHAME.” OH MY GOD. Soon, PETA was involved, and so were a bunch of politicians. “Sparky stands in solidarity with every service dog,” wrote New York Representative Claudia Tenney.
The idea that American military service dogs had been abandoned in Afghanistan was erroneous and easily debunked, so besides being cringeworthy, these tweets were also misinformation. This is a common sight in the “Trending” sidebar, which was built in Twitter’s early days to show off a list of topics that had caused a sudden spike in interest on the platform. Since then, trending topics have become a factor in harassment campaigns, election disinformation, and the amplification of extremism. I am not even close to being the first person to point out the problems that they cause; in May, for example, the writer Ryan Broderick called trending topics “an endless pit of zero stakes anger.” But I do need to add: Twitter should get rid of its Trending sidebar, once and for all. Not just because doing so would make the world a better place, but also because I should really not waste any more of my time on Earth trying to understand what is going on with a bunch of posts from a bunch of people who themselves have no idea what is going on, or who are pretending not to for attention.
Since the beginning, this silly little sidebar has been the cause of tension and anxiety among users—those who need to see Justin Bieber’s new single represented in the space, those who decidedly do not need to see that #WhiteLivesMatter, and those, like the former president of the United States, who feel that trending topics are actually illegal. And since the beginning, the sidebar has been—at its very best—no more than a curiosity. Why can’t Twitter let it go?
I know it’s sick, but I look forward to seeing what new absurdities are waiting for me each day on the internet. I mean this generally, and also specifically with respect to “What’s happening” on Twitter. Did it bring me perverse joy to discover, last week, that the word Brooklyn was trending in Brooklyn? Yes, it did. Did I truly love that Elizabeth Holmes was trending during her federal criminal trial because, according to Twitter’s explanation of the topic, “some attendees at Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes’ trial appear to be dressed in similar style to her”? Yes, I did! That said, I should be rescued from myself, and Twitter should get rid of this feature because it’s useless.
“We want Trends to promote healthy conversations on Twitter, and we work to achieve this in a number of ways,” a Twitter spokesperson told me in an email. But the topics that trend are determined algorithmically, and Twitter’s human curators appear largely beholden to a set of opaque, computerized assessments. In June, I noticed that the word Auschwitz was trending. (I did not click to find out why.) In July, the word Sandy was trending in New York. When I clicked, I saw tweets about the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, “Canada’s stunning sandy beaches,” and a rabbit named Sandy whose pen was about to be cleaned. Even when the site’s curation team includes context, the trends can be totally disorienting. In August, for example, the word Busta was trending. Alongside it, Twitter added the phrase “Experts say masks are safe and effective in preventing spread of COVID-19.” To understand how these two things were connected, I had to poke around until I ended up at a Page Six article about the rapper Busta Rhymes’s recent surprise concert at the 10th anniversary party of a taco chain in Missouri, during which he said some stuff like “Fuck your mask” and “Mandates can suck a dick.”
Twitter’s most active users have had a beef with the Trending feature since its invention. In 2010, Justin Bieber fans were enraged by a change to the site’s algorithm for identifying trends that limited their ability to put his name into the sidebar every single day. Later that year, activists and researchers wondered whether the company might be censoring trends related to WikiLeaks. Twitter denied it, but some compelling evidence suggested that users weren’t getting the whole story. In 2011, the same charges were made about Occupy Wall Street–related hashtags, which were failing to trend in New York City. Twitter provided more transparency about what factors went into its Trending algorithm, and the type of people who would be interested in such a thing came to understand that trends derive not just from a topic’s popularity overall, but from a handful of other signals too: Trends are supposed to be novel and arise from a wide range of users (as opposed to one specific group); they are also supposed to attract original tweets and not just retweets, and the engagement that they generate is supposed to increase at an accelerating pace.
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“Trending topics is probably one of Twitter’s stickiest features,” says Jean Burgess, a professor at Queensland University of Technology and a co-author of Twitter: A Biography. It was introduced as the first major tool to organize user-generated hashtags and help Twitter answer the question the platform originally posed: “What’s happening?” Since then, it has turned into a topic of conversation of its own, and one that often gets discussed—despairingly and disparagingly, at times—by Twitter’s hard-core users, Burgess told me. Still, after spending a decade with this sidebar, users are confused: According to Twitter, the question “Why is this trending?” was tweeted more than half a million times from September 2019 to September 2020. “We need to make trends better and we will,” the company promised in a post last fall. Here are my questions: Do you? And will you? But more importantly: Do you?
The names of celebrities often trend on Twitter. I like to click on these because the first 20 to 500 tweets will be something along the lines of “Saw that Harry Styles was trending and thought he did something so bad and got canceled??? Thank God he didn’t!” and “Saw that Harry Styles was trending and thought he died??? Thank God he didn’t!” When Harry Styles is trending, it’s because he is a very famous person and a lot of people on Twitter are going to post new hashtags and new phrases about him in response to anything he does. But our minds take off in hysterical directions at the slightest Trending prompt: He’s canceled; he’s dead; he’s canceled and dead. Twitter has long been aware of these premature, trend-induced reports of celebrity death. “We’re attempting to remove the ‘WTF?’ from the trending tab,” Twitter’s senior director for curation, Joanna Geary, told OneZero in March, referring to the sense of shock and horror that comes with seeing a favorite name appear in it. “We want you to know that Betty White is just having her birthday.” This is a noble undertaking, but curators still have to wait for a trend to happen before they can contextualize it.
twitter clearly up that betty white is perfectly fine before explaining why she is trending is so funny 😭💀 pic.twitter.com/gdU6YxM8oV
What if trends simply disappeared? A Twitter without trending topics would create a world in which countless human hours are not wasted on the chore of figuring out whether a famous person has died or done something wrong—that’s good. But erasing the “What’s happening” box could have many other, more important benefits. In April, the writer Charlie Warzel explained how the sidebar creates a daily “main character,” set up for harassment when thousands of people are directed to one of their posts, taken out of context. He used the example of a woman who had tweeted, inaccurately but playfully, that horror movies cannot be set in outer space. She then ended up as a trending topic (“Alien,” as in Alien) and had an absolutely horrible day. Whenever a regular post is displayed “to millions of random people as if it was some kind of significant pop-cultural event,” Warzel says, the results are unsurprising. The person who posted it ends up at the bottom of a pile-on, buried under bad-faith responses, showy dunks, or worse. And this is no fun for anyone else either: Do you really like how you feel when you’re getting riled up over a complete stranger’s opinion?
If Twitter trends are meant to reflect the moods and interests of its users, they can fail even when they’re succeeding. Those moods and interests might amplify disinformation, for example, or they could reflect authentic, widespread interest in conspiracy theories. People were curious about QAnon hashtags last year, which caused them to trend quite often. In 2019, the death of Jeffrey Epstein lit up the platform with hashtags such as #ClintonBodyCount and #ClintonCrimeFamily. “It was like lightning,” Justin Hendrix, a media researcher at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, says. “It was like a sports event. There will always be something else like that.”
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Twitter has also battled for some time with fake accounts and paid-for activity that can be used to influence trends artificially. In 2019, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology studied a huge body of tweets from Turkey and laid out an explanation of the sidebar’s vulnerability to astroturfing attacks in which “compromised, active accounts” tweet out the same keywords over and over. This tactic was put to use promoting various advertisements, political talking points, election campaigns, entertainment properties, and the cult leader Adnan Oktar. The researchers found that at least 10 percent of daily Twitter trends in Turkey were being engineered in this way. “In addition, these topics reached higher and trended longer than organic trends,” they wrote. “So their impact is even greater than their volume suggests.”
Twitter has promised many times to improve its users’ experience of the feature. Last fall, it responded to pressure from activists to #UntrendOctober—meaning, shut off the Trending feature at least until the presidential debates were over—by announcing a commitment to add more context to trends. That change invited more criticism: Is paying someone to write a sober description of a racist hashtag really solving the problem?
Twitter’s explanations of trending topics have really started to capture just how exhausting it is to be on this platform pic.twitter.com/LcLH6HfTnL
Twitter’s continuing efforts to fix the Trending tab seem especially odd given how other social-media platforms have approached the same issue. Facebook announced the decommissioning of its controversial Trending News feature in a blog post in 2018. “People found the product to be less and less useful,” the company’s head of news products wrote. Reddit still has an “r/all” forum that lets users see what’s bubbling up across the entire site (with all the problems that invites), but you see it only if you want to; the default experience is a personally curated homepage. Instagram and TikTok surface new, popular content, but recommendations are linked to users’ previous activity (and likely interests). All of these platforms seem to know what Twitter doesn’t: There is no way to fix trends, because there is no real reason for trends to exist.
The most enduring value of the Trending tab is in its absurdity, which is sometimes entertaining—no small thing for me, personally. On the best days, that box looks like the result of a science experiment in which millions of people were asked to participate in a free-form game of word association whose results determined reality. If it ever goes away, I will miss it, in spite of myself. But, seriously, we already have a means of knowing what is “trending” in relation to the topics that we care about, in the countries where we live, and among the people whom we know. That’s why we follow accounts on Twitter in the first place. I already have a sense of what Harry Styles is doing today, because 40 percent of my social-media feed pertains to his life. And I’m pleased to report that, as of this morning, he was not dead or canceled.
People love to hate the site’s “What’s happening” tab. Why won’t the company just let it go?