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.

11 thoughts on “Twitter trending topics and the danger with real-time statistics

  1. Another interesting point which also needs serious look at is at what point do we find it difficult to follow the thousands of people we follow on Twitter. How much we as human beings can we realistically absorb before we reach a point when things start not to make sense anymore. Robin Dunbar in his book the Evolution of Language describes this well in which he talks about need for a strructure after we reach a point where it becomes impossible to manage such a large group and he argues that 150 in a group is the magic number.

  2. Sanjay has a point, wrt the Dunbar number – however not everyone keeps posting in Twitter all the time.

    It also begs the question – there are certain people like Journalists who try and research trends – they can do so depending on how many people they follow.

    Not everyone wants to have a ‘relationship’ with all the people they follow on Twitter – so the Dunbar number might not hold true for everyone!

  3. If you’re following thousands of people, then you are using twitter wrong. In fact you are not using it because you are not following anyone!

  4. I don’t think there is one way to use twitter right or otherwise.

    Would you say @barackobama and @downingstreet are using twitter wrong?

    People can get value in whichever way they can – and who are we to judge that?

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  6. Observer effect as in physics is not applicable here, as there, the observer is not the cause of the effect. While its the tweeting of the people that creates the the trending results at the first place.

    Crowd psychology seems a very apt analogy as people always have the need to stay “in”, and “trendy”.

    @Sanjay : Twitter is not about understanding each tweet of everyone of the people you follow. Its about choosing the ones that interest you, and ignoring the rest.

  7. I totally agree to what you said..tending topics in twitter do confuse us at times. But I think we should follow only those whose updates we are interested in…

  8. I have been thinking of the same thing lately, though from another perspective. When so many people tweet on the same topic, a lot of useless tweets clutter the trending topics and the quality ones are buried deep below.
    I think one solution of this could be initiating a rating system for tweets, where the tweets with highest rating are displayed on the top. Though, I’m not sure how it’ll affect the real-time aspect of the trending topics.

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