Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why was WikiLeaks not a trending topic on Twitter?

 Trending topics onTwitter, worldwide (Bubbloy)
Twitter has a credibility problem.  WikiLeaks has been the top news story in the world, but the organization has only rarely been designated a trending topic on Twitter's "trending topics" panel.
    The convenient explanation is that the data -- WikiLeaks-related  tweets -- simply don't fit the trending topics algorithm.  At least two bloggers have seriously considered this question.   Neither can make sense as to why neither WikiLeaks -- nor  topics related to WikiLeaks have been designated "trending topics" on Twitter.  

    Angus Johnston, a historian and advocate of American student organizing, writes at Student Activism blog:
    But no. That’s not the weird part. This is the weird part.
    This chart tracks Sundays and Wikileaks over the last 180 days, with each term’s volume drawn to scale. The red spires? Wikileaks. The blue dust at the base of those spires? Sundays. The tiny blue uptick in the lower left hand corner of the chart has had Sundays trending for more than twelve hours today, while Wikileaks has been completely dark since August.
    What the hell is going on here?
    As I said in my last two posts, I don’t care that much about trending topics lists. I’m a big believer in online organizing, but I just don’t think getting your cause to trend is all that important in the grand scheme of things. But this, like I say, is ridiculous.
    Update | Twitter staffer Josh Elman responds...
    Is Twitter interested in getting to the bottom of the WikiLeaks trending question?  Josh Elman, the Twitter staffer, wrote "We are constantly reviewing the trends algorithms but not in particular response to this question...."   Elman continued, “There’s no perfect answer here, just that the algorithm is doing what it’s always done, and for whatever reasons wikileaks isn’t rising above to become a top 10 trend.”     

    It seems that "whatever reasons" isn't a sufficient explanation for many social media watchers.  Another blogger, Bubbloy of Safety First, followed up on the investigations of Activist Student, examining more charts.   Bubbloy concluded:
    The only plausible scenario I can imagine where #Wikileaks does not trend in the top 10 with that sort of behavior is if the other members of the top 10 exhibit even more astounding rises and falls. However, that doesn’t seem to be what’s happened.
     Therefore, I am forced to a similar conclusion as Student Activist. It might well be that #Wikileaks is failing to trend simply because of the algorithm failing to pick it up for whatever reason. However, I must say, that would imply that Twitter has written perhaps one of the most abysmal Trend Identification algorithms it could have possibly written. If the goal of the algorithm was to pick up events of importance, popularity or any other meaningful social metric, Twitter would have failed miserably in this aim, and would truly start looking into developing a new one.
    What's going on here?    I can see two likely explanations for the problem.  The one that everyone fears -- outright human manipulation of the trending topics to serve a political agenda -- may well be the less depressing of the two.

    The grounds for suspecting Twitter might be suppressing promotion of WikiLeaks is quite strong.  During the Iranian election of 2009, Twitter postponed scheduled maintenance of its website at the request of the State Department.    Of course, the State Department portrays itself as the major victim of the ongoing WikiLeaks cables leak.

    Are we to believe the State Department is willing to pick up the phone to help the Iranians, but not to salvage its own reputation? 

    What about Twitter?  These days, the US government is tight with corporate America -- media companies in particular.    Twitter could still be the next Google.  For any number of reasons,  Twitter might not want to have a messy or complicated relationship with the Obama Administration.   Nor does any big technology or media  company.  We saw that Amazon kicked WikiLeaks off its servers last week, seemingly at the behest of Senator Joseph Lieberman who chairs the Senate Committee on Homeland Security.   Also at the behest of the senator, Tableau, another Seattle-based tech company, pulled its WikiLeaks charts

    These days, if senior government officials want a favor from business, it probably only takes a phone call.  Perhaps not even that.  Even in good times, companies don't want to risk attracting unwanted attention from government regulators or politicians.  Particularly when the domestic economy is sluggish, few companies will risk alienating the potential client with the deepest pockets: the federal government of the United States. 

    Yet, the most likely explanation -- "the algorithms did it!" -- could be even more disturbing in so far as it speaks to the future of social media more generally.   Let's put ourselves in the seat of a Twitter executive, looking to take the company through its multi-billion dollar future IPO and beyond:    What would make Twitter more attractive commercially: a trending topics algorithm that will A) highlight rising fads related to regional product, service, and entertainment preferences, or B) one designed to reflect important global trends concerning politics, the environment, and the economy?

    Social media site executives likely imagine that social media will be profitable to the extent they create communities of consumption.   As a consequence, mainstream media values may well be dictating the way Twitter programs its software to behave.  In other words, Twitter may already be a slave to a commercial paradigm where human political values are deemed to have little, if any, market value.  Other, longstanding ideas about community that don't fit this box are unlikely to be prominently reflected in the architecture of Twitter or any other social media site.      

    Although television and radio stations are expected to provide public interest programming such as news, social media sites like Twitter have no similar obligations to provide access to public-interest content.   This arrangement has to change.   Twitter ought to feel obliged to display links to popular topics concerning news and various public interest issues. 

    If the market has its way, the future of social media will be about reinforcing the habits of global consumers at the expense of issues that really matter to us as global citizens.


    1. Do they really expect us to believe that this specific hashtag, of the thousands that trended over the last year, is the one that is having "algorithm" problems? Their explanation doesn't even seem to make basic sense.

    2. Any algorithm that ignored the sheer volume of WikiLeaks related posts would be worthless, "weighting"-or-not. Just more "Corporate" Police State filtering... like a Monty Python movie where Michael Palin plays the Police Inspector who says "Nothing to see, Move Along, Move Along."


    Because all comments on this blog are moderated, there will be some delay before your comment is approved.