The Twuth About Twitter Twends Revealed (by Brit Living in Shanghai)

Plus, Why the Microblogging Service Matters More in China, and What to do About Twam

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NEW YORK ( -- Twitter prides itself on taking the true pulse of cyberspace. Trend-watch on Google, the thinking goes, and you're behind the curve. Trend-watch on Twitter, and you're jacked into right now!

WORLD TRAVELER: When Matt Mayer's not making sense of tweets, he explores the world (here he's in North Korea).
WORLD TRAVELER: When Matt Mayer's not making sense of tweets, he explores the world (here he's in North Korea).
Only problem is, right now, as seen on Twitter, is increasingly a total mess. Part of the issue is that the universe of Twitterers has grown so rapidly that the baseline noise in the signal-to-noise ratio sometimes gets almost deafening. Another problem is that Twitter recently revamped everybody's home page, so the "trending topics" list now gets much more prominent placement -- which has exponentially increased the interest that mischief-makers and spammers have in fomenting fake trends. But the main problem is the nature of Twitter itself, which, of course, fosters "discussions" that are by definition piecemeal, and are therefore often opaque to those joining the discussion late, or just attempting to eavesdrop.

Like last week at various times, "Kris" and "Adam" were top Twitter trends, and it didn't really take that much Twea-leaf reading to figure out that it was because those fellas are "American Idol" finalists. But "PMQs"? To Americans, tweets using that term were largely inscrutable. Fortunately, there's a clever site called What the Trend that crowd-sources brief explanations of Twitter trends, Wikipedia-style: "PMQs is an abbreviation of Prime Minister's Questions, a weekly Q&A session with the British prime minister held in the House of Commons. It is trending because it is on [TV] now."

Over the past couple of months, since I first stumbled across What the Trend (sorry, Twitter, but I discovered it through a Google search), I've become increasingly dependent on it; I check it every day, sometimes repeatedly. In fact, I'm so appreciative, I wanted to buy the creator of the site, a globetrotting 25-year-old British technologist named Matt Mayer, a pint, but he's in Shanghai at the moment working as web developer, and I'm in New York City. So we had a conversation via Skype instead, as I was having my morning coffee and he was getting ready for bed. In this, his first interview about What the Trend, Mayer discusses the genesis of his project and offers insights about Twitter trends in general.

Media Guy: What's increasingly annoying about Twitter these days is all these artificially generated trends that live and die as self-referential Twitter memes. Like, a couple weekends back, I remember seeing #hoppusday, and I vaguely had the sense that Mark Hoppus of the band Blink 182 might be behind it, because he's active on Twitter. But the first 10 or 15 tweets I saw were basically the same, all asking "What the hell is #hoppusday?" So thank God for your site, which explained that Blink182 fansite arbitrarily decided to celebrate Hoppus Day on Twitter. You know, these kinds of things didn't happen as much when Twitter was smaller and was more about an intimate conversation among like-minded people.

Mr. Mayer: Yeah, absolutely. And in general the communication gets shortened to such an extent that unless you're in a conversation right from the beginning it's really hard to know what people are talking about -- and that was very much one of the reasons why I started What the Trend.

Media Guy: When did you formally launch?

Mr. Mayer: Feb. 18. I had a couple of hours to spare, I was looking at the Twitter API [application programming interface] and saw that they had an API that allowed you to access what the current trends were and I thought, really, this just needs some explanation to go with the raw data. And I just melded them together as quickly as I could, put it on the web, and almost immediately people started coming in and using it and defining these trends.

Media Guy: Right from the start you planned to crowd-source the explanations?

Mr. Mayer: Yeah. As with Wikipedia, in practice, crowd-sourcing does work. On What the Trend, anyone can just come in and edit the description of any trend. It's bound to be full of spam, it's bound to be full of people just being stupid -- but in reality, generally people are pretty helpful. Anything that gets vandalized, generally someone comes along 10 minutes later and fixes it.

Media Guy: So you're pretty hands-off? How much daily work do you put into maintaining the site?

Mr. Mayer: Very little at the moment. I generally just check in with it for a few minutes a day, check that no one has put anything offensive on. It's all kinds of automated. When I wake up in the morning, there are 50 new trends and 50 new explanations. It's kind of exciting to see it in action.

Media Guy: Seems to me that for a 3-year-old company, Twitter has been sort of oddly sleepy about developing things in-house that would make the service more useful. Like, the search functionality on the site now is something that an outside company, Summize, developed, that Twitter ending up buying.

Mr. Mayer: They want to focus on making their core service reliable. If Twitter was always down, then in the end people would give up on it. But I also think that given the whole community of developers out there making huge numbers of tools and clients to interact with Twitter, they can just sit there and see these other people effectively build extra value for them. So while obviously everyone knows that Twitter doesn't really have a business model at the moment, they are certainly building an impressive system.

Media Guy: Given that you're such a keen watcher of trends on Twitter, I'm curious about your thoughts regarding the instantaneity of Twitter as a news source. Like, Twitter was famously an early source of information about the plane that crashed into the Hudson River in New York City in January, largely because of that guy on a ferry who decided to tweet his amazing iPhone shot of the floating fuselage. But even then, most of the actually informative tweets I saw linked to mainstream media coverage, because the local and national media jumped on the story within literally minutes. And in general, obviously, much of what's trending on Twitter is about stuff that's originating with old media.

Mr. Mayer: I would agree with you that the cases in which Twitter actually breaks news are pretty limited. I'd also agree with you that quite a lot of the trending tweets are kind of a) quite predictable and b) do come from mainstream media or mainstream events. If there's a TV program on prime time in the U.S., it will trend. If there is a major tech conference, it will trend. If there's a new product announced from Apple, it will trend. But there definitely are situations where it does break the news a lot earlier. An example from here in China, a few months ago there was a fire at the CCTV Building in Beijing, and I heard about that first on Twitter. There were photos on Twitpic and several hours of discussion before it even got mentioned in the mainstream media. I think in some countries maybe where the coverage of news is not as 24/7 and instantaneous, maybe it's more powerful. And in situations where things are just happening faster than the mainstream media can keep up with, eyewitness reports are important.

One other thing at the moment, there's a big bias particularly toward U.S. trends and to a lesser extent, British and Australian trends. I think if Twitter expands into more languages, if they localize the interface in multiple languages, I think that would be interesting because I think you'd get a better sense of trends from around the world.

Media Guy: Let's talk for a moment about twam, or Twitter spam -- the way that spammers and scammers have been inserting trending terms into their tweets so that when people search on those trends, they're exposed to off-topic spammy tweets. What should Twitter be doing to address that?

Mr. Mayer: What the Trend has recently also become the target of spam attacks. I recently spent 30 minutes, after a spam attack, hacking together an administrative tool to allow me to revert spam posting more easily. When my tool was ready, I went to delete the spam -- and it had already gone! Confused, I checked the logs. Other visitors had already manually replaced the spam with more useful explanations. It's the Wikipedia Effect at work. Provided you make it easy for the "good guys" to clean up after any "bad guys," the community can work together to minimize the effect of spam. Now that Twitter trends have a more prominent position in the Twitter interface, the temptation to spammers grows. Twitter needs to find some way to leverage community feedback to not only quickly remove trends which are identified as spam, but also display more relevant tweets when people search on a trend.

Media Guy: Great answer. And actually, you know, one last question: Is What the Trend for sale? Like, say, if Twitter might want to buy it?

Mr. Mayer: [Laughter] We will see.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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