As I write this, it’s about two hours since the AP reported the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Jobs is receiving an overwhelming amount of attention on Twitter — according to the Trendistic site, the words “Steve Jobs” appeared in 15.85% of all tweets posted in the last hour. Yes, you read that right. Nearly one in every six tweets on the entire Twitter site included the words “Steve Jobs.” That’s more than used the words “of” or “you” or “and.”
And yet “Steve Jobs” isn’t trending on Twitter.
“#ThankYouSteve” is, with far less traffic. “iSad” is, with one percent of the traffic. Hell, “Apple II” is, with 0.02% of all tweets. But “Steve Jobs” isn’t.
Why? Because Twitter’s trending algorithm, for better or worse, values novelty over volume, and people tweet about Steve Jobs all the time. But they don’t usually tweet “RIP STEVE JOBS,” and so that phrase, with just a fifth of the traffic of the man’s name on its own, is currently leading the worldwide trending topics list.
So next time you get upset that your favorite cause isn’t trending, do two things before you accuse Twitter of censorship. First, check to see whether the phrase in question is really getting the volume of traffic you think it is. (Right now #OccupyWallStreet, my own current favorite cause, is running about a sixtieth of the traffic of Steve Jobs’ name, and about a twelfth of the traffic of RIP STEVE JOBS.)
And second, if the topic is getting a lot of traffic, check to see whether associated phrases are trending. If #OccupyWallStreet isn’t trending, is Zuccotti Square? Or NYPD? Or “pepper spray”? If so, then Twitter’s algorithm is doing what it’s intended to do — finding the unusual terms that are associated with a novel development, and shining a spotlight on them for a few short hours.
October 11 Update | Interesting new datapoint in the wake of the arrest of a hundred Occupy Boston demonstrators late last night. “Occupy Boston” trended, but #OccupyBoston didn’t. Here’s my best guess as to why.