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.
Every 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:
Other trending topics, however, didn’t fare so well. Newt (Gingrich) was trending on Sunday morning, with no context to speak of in Twitter’s search results:
The same went for #TedBundy on August 18:
And Susan Sarandon the following day:
In all of these cases, I had to do a little scrolling to find something, anything, that might explain why the person was trending. (Turns out Gingrich said something offensive, there was a Ted Bundy special airing on TV on August 18, and the Center for American Progress’ Neera Tanden had tweeted about Susan Sarandon’s politics.)
These are just a few of the examples I gathered, but there’s a definite pattern here: The topics that lacked context tend not to be particularly big stories with concrete news tied to them.
In Gingrich’s case, he was discussing the New York Times’ 1619 Project — Gingrich was just one of many conservatives voicing their opposition to it. There are news articles explaining the backlash now, but at the time, the larger story — “conservatives don’t like the 1619 Project” — was still developing, in large part on Twitter, which meant there was little context available.
Twitter does a decent job at offering context when there’s some sort of concrete “breaking” news, like a plane crash, a celebrity getting married, or specific anniversary.
Similarly, Ted Bundy was trending because people were actively watching the documentary as it aired live. There wasn’t really a “story” there — something’s on TV, people are talking about it, and therefore tweeting. Some news organizations did eventually develop a narrative, like in Newsweek’s article the next morning — but at that point, the topic had already passed its peak on Twitter.
The Susan Sarandon conversation is an especially convoluted beast, since she’s essentially been part of an ongoing Twitter feud since the 2016 election. Tanden’s tweet may have been the reason she was trending that day (at least, as far as I could tell), but that likely sprang up after Debra Messing tweeted about Sarandon earlier in the week, which sprang up because of Sarandon’s reappearance as a Bernie Sanders supporter, which… you get the idea. The topic is complex enough that it needs its own explainer, but it also doesn’t seem to be a big enough story for many news organizations to cover, so Twitter didn’t have a lot of digestible context to offer. (I even struggled to explain it in this paragraph.)
In other words, Twitter does a decent job at offering context when there’s some sort of concrete “breaking” news, like a plane crash, a celebrity getting married, or specific anniversary. (Seriously, the number of celebrities that trend just because it’s their birthday is wild — happy 45th, Amy Adams!) But sometimes the story is the fact that a topic is trending on Twitter, and news outlets usually aren’t rushing to post about it until the conversation has taken shape, which usually doesn’t happen until after the topic or hashtag drops off the sidebar.
That’s not to say Twitter’s algorithm is as good as it can be, of course. Dwight Howard was trending on August 18, for example, thanks to rumors that the Los Angeles Lakers were interested in signing him. Yet there was no context given in the search results for the trending topic:
Even though there were plenty of news articles and tweets from sports journalists detailing the rumors.
To give Twitter the benefit of the doubt, maybe they didn’t want to promote a story that was still in the rumor stages. (Their curation style guide does stress accuracy, but doesn’t strictly dissuade posting about rumors — and much of off-season sports coverage is, after all, rumors about personnel moves.) But if a topic is trending and there are actual articles or tweets on the topic that could explain why the topic is trending, I’d argue Twitter should highlight them in the name of a better user experience.
Still, in the majority of trending topics I saw over the week without context, there was some reasoning apparent behind Twitter’s lack of background. Perhaps we’re just primed to think that the algorithm is broken because we only notice it when we aren’t given what we want, even if that’s only part of the time. But for now, we may just have to deal with a little scrolling if you actually care why a celebrity is trending. But don’t worry — if they’re dead, it’ll be big enough news that Twitter will probably tell you up top.