Trending Topics Aren’t the Problem

Shel Israel says Twitter’s trending topics aren’t useful. For the most part, I agree. I’ve been watching people game trending topics for months; sometimes to the extent that I expect “trending topic” or “trend” to become a trending topic instead of the target phrase.

But I disagree with Shel’s views that trending topics are the reason why Twitter is of decreasing utility:

But Trending Topics, has become all-too-often a list cluttered and dominated by banalities, contests and silliness that is of no interest or use to a great many people, particularly those of us who use Twitter for business, or to learn about events in the world; nor is not useful for actually meeting new people with whom you share common interests.

I think it’s a little early to declare Twitter useless for networking and business, but it’s getting there. Trending topics aren’t the problem though. Sure, trending topics are less useful these days because you see more #ohnoyoudiint than #iranelection but this is a symptom, not a cause.

The reason Twitter is of diminishing utility and will eventually be worthless is because the general populace is becoming interested. When Twitter was small, its users mainly consisted of social media and programming nerds who recognized its potential as a networking tool. This group of people was most interested in discussion about their niche interests, and Twitter helped bring them together. (I might add that IRC did this long ago, but I will concede that IRC is much less discoverable since you have to find a server and a channel, and there’s fragmentation.) The dream of this group of people was to bring Twitter to the masses, so that everyone could benefit from the wisdom of authorities in their fields.

This is where reality hits hard. There are many individuals that are passionate enough about topics to make it both their career and their hobby. However, “many” in this case is a minority compared to the general population. Most people aren’t passionate about their job, and don’t really care to be. These people want to come home and escape; they want to talk about celebrities, TV shows, and anything else that’s only useful for entertainment value. This is your majority, and when they come to Twitter they’re not interested in talking about Twitter killing newspapers or which framework you can use to write Sprawling Business App 2.0; they want to talk about the guy on Comedy Central or American Idol.

I don’t think Shel is ignorant of this pattern, in fact he states that it happens without making the point I’m making:

This may seem like a trivial topic, but it is not. There was a time when thinkers had great vision for television. NBC pioneer David Sarnoff envisioned bringing opera and symphony into America’s living rooms. News pioneer Edward R. Murrow thought that the distribution of news on television would level abuses by tyrants and corrupt public officials. Educators dreamed of using television to educate the masses.

And we ended up with American Idol.

But yet, it still seems like he’s missing something:

Twitter is the fastest growing computer-based technology in history. There is no end to that growth trend in site. It has the potential of letting each of us find others who share our interests and passions without intermediation by bosses, government, advertisers or anyone.

Is this not what the pioneers of television probably said to themselves? “This technology has limitless potential for enriching the lives of all humanity. People will use this to improve their lives.” Joe Public didn’t care about opera and symphony: centuries of conditioning programmed him to believe these are frilly things to be enjoyed by the rich (good job, aristocracy!) People who had invested their wealth in television were forced to provide programming that people would watch, which led us astray from the initial vision. The same thing happened with Facebook. The early adopters were mostly college students interested in social media, since you had to be a student to sign up in the first place. The potential for communication was realized, and people decided that everyone should have access. Joe Public saw that he could use Facebook to tell his friends what bar he’s at, and never looked farther. It’s the same with Twitter: social media people see an invaluable tool for connecting yourself to people with great ideas, but the populace sees a tool for finding people that like the same kind of parties as you.

This pattern seems as if it will repeat forever. The solution is to keep these tools secret and closed only to those who value the personal connections, but this is analogous to the old aristocracy protecting the secrets of reading and writing from the masses. The populace ruins social media, but deserves the chance to use it for their personal enrichment. Trending topics are not the problem.  The problem is that most people don’t care about enriching their life, and this causes trending topics to be useless.