The Sometimes Circular Logic of Twitter’s Trending Timeline

If you see a celebrity trending, don’t automatically assume they died. It might just be their birthday.

Whitson Gordon
Published in
6 min readAug 23, 2019


Photo by on Unsplash

EEvery time a celebrity’s name pops up in Twitter’s trending timeline, I like to play a little game: are they actually dead, or, did they make a politically controversial statement? Unfortunately, that game is sometimes hard to play, since clicking on the person’s name inevitably brings me to a feed of reaction GIFs that offer no context as to what happened.

So why can’t Twitter explain to me why someone is trending on its platform? Is Twitter’s algorithm hopelessly broken, or is there something more complex at play? To figure out the answer, I spent the past week monitoring Twitter’s trends closely in an attempt to find some sort of pattern. The experience was illuminating.

First, my exploration quickly dispelled the common notion that Twitter’s trending pages “never” show anything useful. Quite often, I found that clicking on a topic showed a tweet at the top of the results explaining the news, often from the company’s own Twitter Moments account. A Twitter spokesperson told me they do have a curation team that can add context as a conversation evolves, but that a tweet from the company’s team may not be there when a topic first begins to trend, and it varies from topic to topic whether the platform will offer curated content.

For example, after Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s plane crash last week, Twitter was on top of the news, showing you exactly why his name was trending:

The same went for Lauren Hashain’s marriage to Dwayne Johnson:

Even what would have been the rapper Nate Dogg’s 50th birthday — he died in 2011 — created a trending topic with an XXL Magazine article at the top of the results: