Twitter trending topics and the danger with real-time statistics

Everytime I see Twitter trending topics, it reminds of the scientific adage that when we observe something we change it. It is a recognized effect in physics (see Wikipedia for an explanation of Observer effects). By allowing us to observe trending topics in real time, Twitter gives us the opportunity to change them. Contrast that with post-hoc analysis like Google Zeigeist. It is way past the event, and as such, harder to influence.

This is not just Twitter, this is the danger (and opportunity) with real-time statistics. When we find out about something in real time, we don’t just observe, we also participate and change the phenomenon itself. Recall the type of information and misinformation that spread when Swine Flu was a trending topic on Twitter.

It goes beyond the observer effect: real time statistics also facilitate herding behavior even more than the internet typically does. The analogy is to crowd behavior more than anything else. As decades of research in psychology have shown and as James Suoweicki pointed out in his book “Wisdom of crowds”, you need certain conditions under for the behavior of crowds to be wise.

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This is an opportunity: one can design social systems where wisdom of crowds is more likely to prevail. I am hoping folks at Twitter and anyone else playing with real-time statistics will give Suroweicki a read and rethink the design of trending topics.