How Does Twitter Go About Deciding What’s Trending?

A Twitter trending hashtag. Whether it’s an earthquake in South America, the death of a rock star, or a model wearing a particularly revealing swimsuit, this little Twitter function tells you in an instant what’s got the world talking.

But how does Twitter decide what’s trend-worthy? What social media magic do they inject to ensure that the most interesting and relevant pieces of info get to see the light of day?

Let’s have a look at what makes a topic trend on Twitter.

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The Algorithm

As with almost every aspect of social media functionality, Twitter relies on an algorithm to shape its trending topics. In its simplest form, this algorithm identifies spikes in the popularity of a certain topic, relative to its normal level. This takes in factors of both volume (the amount of tweets on the topic) and time (the amount of time it takes to generate that volume of tweets).

Time is a very important factor, because a topic that slowly builds over the course of a month may be getting an astounding amount of tweets after 30 days, but because of the slow growth, no spike ever existed to get it trending. This explains why such movements as #OccupyWallStreet had such trouble trending – their growth was (relatively) slow and steady, and despite the sheer amount of tweets on the issue, the fact that there was never a spike meant that it never appeared on Twitter’s trending board.

Factoring in time means that Twitter’s trending topics are constantly being updated. A spike can only ever last for so long, so the board is kept fresh and interesting.

The Complexities

As with anything in tech, the algorithm isn’t as simple as it might seem on the packet. Twitter’s trending topics are also tailored to the specific user, factoring in things like location and accounts followed. This makes sense, because while the bulk of Twitter users reside in the US, users in Mauritius or Bangladesh may not be so passionate about what Kim Kardashian did or didn’t wear. This setting can be changed, however, by accessing your trending section settings and choosing a different city, or an entire country.

The issue of trending topics can be further confused by user error. In the wake of the San Bernardino shootings in the US, the topic failed to trend in many locations because the volume was split between the correct spelling – #SanBernardino – and the incorrect spelling – #SanBernadino.

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So How Do I Get a Topic to Trend?

Being a trending topic can be a boon for anyone who holds a stake in said topic. Whether it be a consumer product (#iPhone7), a creative piece (#TheAvengers) or just shameless self-promotion (#Kardashian), finding your way onto the trending board is the sort of free publicity that dreams are made of.

In order to get your topic trending, try the following tips:

  • Use an entirely unique hashtag. New hashtags are quicker to trend than old ones, as there’s no built up history that will make it harder to achieve a relative spike.
  • Be strategic about when you try to trend. Check that there are no major landmark occasions happening (e.g. an election or a big television event) before you attempt to trend.
  • Try to utilise a captive audience. Conduct a conference, webinar or some other gathering, and then provide a clear and concise call to action to get the group tweeting.

It must be said that while trending topics are currently able to be manufactured, Twitter is well aware of this practice, and is looking at measures to counteract the artificial Twitterstorms.

So that’s it. By looking at spikes, and analysing the relative popularity of a subject at any moment in time, Twitter offers up its users a hashtag-heavy, 140 character slice of the world.

 

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