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How is Twitter coping with trend spam?

Henry Elliss
Henry Elliss
Managing Director
7 July 2009

There’s a long answer and a short answer to the question in the title of the post, so if you’re in a hurry I’ll give you the short one first: Not very well!

So now for the long answer…

twitter2The problem of “trend spam” has been raising it’s ugly head more and more lately. For those of you who aren’t as geeky about Twitter as I am, here’s what trend spam is in a nutshell: Twitter’s trending topics list is a top 10 list of things people are discussing on Twitter at any one time, ranked according to activity. Until very recently it didn’t raise a lot of people’s ire, and served as quite a useful way of not only picking up on global events (Michael Jackson’s death was probably revealed to a lot of people via the trends, for instance) but also a great way for some of the comedy elements of Twitter to spread and grow. Hashtag keywords also appeared a lot – when we were at the media140 conference a couple of months back, for instance, “Media140” appeared in the trending topics quite frequently during the sessions.

Most people will (understandably) not give too much thought to how this list is calculated – how do they resolve variations of the same term for instance? When the Michael Jackson trend first began to appear, several variations appeared, but they were soon “resolved” down to just a couple, presumably by human intervention to “merge” several trending topics together. In fact, you can see examples of how Twitter choose to merge several keywords in to one trend when you click on any of the topics – example below:

jackson

So clearly the trending list is getting “cleaned” and tweaked on a regular basis – and a lot of people are now calling this censorship.

The debate hotted-up even more this week after the guys over at Moon Fruit Lounge had their trending topic “Moonfruit” taken out of the trending topics altogether – despite data showing it should have been top of the list. Moon Fruit Lounge were taking advantage of the trending topics list to publicise their competition for 10 MacBooks – users were encouraged to use the tag #Moonfruit in their posts to be entered in to the prize draw, and this had the desired effect very quickly, with the tag appearing at the top of the trending list throughout last week. But as MFL reveal in the blog post on the subject, yesterday Twitter took them out of the trends completely and this has kicked up a bit of a storm.

mollie_sugden_as_mrs_slocombeLast week saw another incident which highlighted this possible censorship in action. Very sadly, the actress Mollie Sugden passed away, and a number of high profile UK twitterers and comedians decided it would be a fitting tribute to use one of her most famous catch-phrases as a hashtag – #MrsSlocombesPussy. Now for those that are easily offended I should point you to the following webpage to explain the joke before we go on. Anyway, the tag quickly got in to the trending topics list, much to most people’s amusement – at least here in the UK, where the joke was fairly understandable. Over in the US, our American cousins were getting in quite a flap about it – as can be witness by this article on Mashable. Subsequently, the tag was quickly removed by Twitter, a move which several people in the UK spotted – once again raising the cry of censorship.

One of the things I find most amusing about the Sugden incident is this line from the above Mashable article by Robin Wauters: “many people (including reporters worldwide) track Twitter trending topics for breaking news, and it worries me that they can be manipulated.” Clearly Mr Wauters doesn’t keep a very close eye on the trending topics – as a regular twitter user, I can’t think of a single day where a joke-related hashtag hasn’t appeared in the list. Just recently the comedian Richard Herring was very proud to get the tag #VirgilioAnderson in to the trends – Dave Gorman did the same with the comedy-mis-spell “Tending Tropics” (see below). Heck, even I’ve managed to get things in to the trending topics with a little help from a few celebrity re-tweets. How anyone can *not* see how easy this system is to “game” is beyond me.

dave-gorman

But the question still remains – will Twitter reveal how much censorship is actually going on, or what criteria they use for this process? There has been talk of giving users the option to highlight which trends they believe to be spam – but surely the international flavour of Twitter means there are going to be some real cultural clashes going on if this is the case. It’s going to be an interesting ride for Twitter over the next few months…

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