Are the Trending Topics on Twitter a Waste of Time?

Twitter has been busy messing around with its user interface. It recently added the latest Trending Topics in its right-hand column, just below the Search box. The Trending Topics shows the top ten keywords currently in use. If one looks at a third-party application such as Twopular you'll get a more detailed view of the trends but it is fairly consistent with Twitter's own calculations. However, how useful is Twitter Trends and how does it compare to Google Trends?

Google's own Hot Trends is based on actual searches. The full algorithm is somewhat of a secret and the data given does not indicate how this calculation is performed. What one can assume is that the Hot Trends are those keywords whose search numbers are above their norm. They therefore tend to be news-related keywords and even a small but sudden increase in searches can lead to a listing in the Hot Trends. Apart from a serious burst of viral marketing it isn't easy to manipulate what Google is tracking. After all, once you click on a keyword there is absolutely no reason to then go and search for the same word unless you really want some further background information that is not available at the links already provided by Google.

In contrast, if you click on a keyword in Twitter's Trends what you'll see are dozens of identical tweets, often retweeting (RT) the same message over and over again. However, what you also find are lots of spammy tweets that have taken the trending keyword and then inserted it into a tweet about something completely different! On Twitter there are two types of keywords: one is a keyword string extracted from tweet texts, somewhat like Google does; and the other are hash tags such as #hottrends. The hash tags are useful for defining a subject across many tweets but what one finds is that most trending keywords on twitter are hash tags rather than contextual keywords.

Finding short-term trends can be useful to those writers who like to ambulance-chase the latest buzzy topics in the hope of increased traffic and earnings. But this somewhat relies on the trending data being genuine and not subject to mass manipulation. Tweets are so short that it is impossible to tell whether a message is really about the keyword or not. As often happens with any list across the web, such as social bookmarking lists, there is always a tipping point. If you can sneak into the bottom of the list this often gives you a leg up to the next level. Hover just below this cut-off point and you could easily fall back down again. people are lazy - they'll look at the most obvious thing first.

But on Twitter, getting a subject on its Trending Topics is liable to be swamped with spam and unrelated garbage. Yes, you will also find the original tweet being resent by lots of people but what you don't seem to get is a stream of any discussion that is taking place. Perhaps I'm the only one who thinks this is a problem, but what was supposed to be a good idea is just too easy to abuse.
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