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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Many of Twitter Search's Trending Topics Really Aren't: They're Just Twitter Echo

Here's the scenario. You go to your favorite Twitter search engine to see what's going on in Twitterdom. Assuming you've gone to http://search.twitter.com/, you look down at the Trending Topics to see what's on the minds of Twitteropians. You see the following phrase "Skateboarder Wanted." You're intrigued. You're wondering "what could a skateboarder have done that has him or her wanted by the police?" So you click on the link and get taken to the Twitter search results page. You see a number of postings describing a story from Germany in which a skateboarder is wanted for doing 62 mph in a 50 mph zone.

Okay, interesting enough, but Trending Topic? Hardly! At the time of this writing, there were only twenty postings that matched on a query of 'skateboarder wanted.' So how does a topic with so little interest become a Trending Topic?

To answer this question, let's start by taking a closer look at the results. Of the twenty matching posts, four of them were tweeted by a human, and the other sixteen were tweeted automatically from a feed service such as TwitterFeed.com. TwitterFeed is a terrific free service that Twitalytics uses to automatically submit our blog posts to Twitter. The way that it works is you set up an account with TwitterFeed and provide your Twitter account name and password. You set up a new feed by providing the address of the RSS feed you want to post from. You then set the frequency that you want TwitterFeed to check for new posts. Set it and forget it. It really is a very useful service.

But, as with many things, it is pretty easy to abuse this service. You see, even though the spirit of TwitterFeed is to enable you to tweet *your blog* -- you actually can tweet any blog or RSS feed. So let's return to our wanted skateboarder. That story was posted to Digg where it got enough interest to make it into the RSS feed for popular Digg stories. Now imagine a Twitter account whose only purpose in life is to re-tweet stories as they get published via RSS feeds from major sites such as Digg, TechCrunch, NY Times, CNN and so on.

Here is an example of four such accounts. @headlinenews, @headline_news, @top_news and @breaking_news. There are many others but I chose these as really good examples. What each of these has in common is the intention of tweeting news headlines from major news sources. The aggregation of the disparate sources combined to make a somewhat useful Twitter account. You can imagine that if you followed any one of these, you'd be getting a good cross-section of news stories as they occur.

The problem occurs when many people act on this idea and set up Twitter accounts for automated re-tweets of the same news sources. In the case of the skateboarder story, once the headline made it into the Digg feed, fifteen accounts (in addition to diggupdates who also tweeted the headline) re-tweeted the same exact headline. This barage of tweets dealing with the same subject in a narrow slice of time caused the phrase "Skateboarder Wanted" to achieve the status of a Trending Topic (though that didn't last very long). It really wasn't a hot topic nor did it ever become one (at least not on Twitter).

This phenomenon, which we're referring to as "Twitter Echo," occurs for most of the major news sources. The articles get published in their RSS feeds and then re-tweet accounts automatically multiply the post causing the terms in the headline to immediately spike as a Trending Topic. [Note: the phrase "Twitter Echo" has been used before but hasn't taken hold, so the terminology seems to remain up for grabs.]

Is Twitter Echo bad? Well, it creates additional noise in the system that for the most part isn't resonating with the Twitter audience. The four Twitter accounts mentioned above have a combined following of 516. That's not much. Twitter makes it very easy for a user to sign up for tweets from the news sources of interest that the user cares about. Is there really much added value from someone doing the work of news source aggregation? It's hard to imagine that there is.

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