Twitter’s trending topics have been gamed to death, judging by the lack of breaking news displayed. This, pretty much, is the view of TechCrunch writer Robin Wauters, and he’s not wrong.

What used to be a valuable way of seeing what’s new in the world, and often before it is covered by the mainstream media, is now a mess of lame hashtags.

Robin says: 

I can’t help but think it’s a pity that that list is starting to turn into the top 10 of chain letters people used to circulate through e-mail messages in the late nineties.

"Fine with me if people want to share what they consider to be lies that boys tell, or which 3 words should follow after sex, or what their moms used to tell them when they were little, but as I said before I think it’s a shame considering how powerful that trending feature and how valuable that list could be instead."

So what can Twitter do about it? Well, there are various methods that can be employed to help fix this up, improving the Twitter experience in the process?

Twitter needs to dig itself out of a hashy holeDIVIDE AND CONQUER

Not all trending topics are equal. ‘Earthquake’ is more newsworthy, and meaningful, than ‘3wordsaftersex’, which is throwaway fun for roughly ten seconds or so. Meanwhile, some trends are actually just coverage of geek events, a demographic that is all over Twitter, and that has disproportionate power in starting trends for all to see. Event tweets can be deemed a ‘trend’, but they’re different to the other two mentioned, at least until the mainstream gets involved. 

So there we have three types of trends for starters. I'm sure there are others.

Twitter might want to look at splitting these out. As a user I’d like to have the option of displaying News / Fun / Event trends in my sidebar. Identifying one trend from another can be done in various ways. 


Links are a fundamental way of determining that a trend might be news-based, since many of these tweets will link to a mainstream media source (or a blog, for that matter). 

So if a trending tweet contains a link pointing to any of these sources, then file it under ‘news’. Here’s another reason why Twitter should be buying in the first instance.


Ah yes, you may be thinking… but what about the earthquakes? Earthquakes break on Twitter well in advance of any coverage on the news sites like CNN, BBC, NYT, etc. So what can be done about that?

Well if everybody is mentioning the word ‘earthquake’, then do you really need a user-generated ‘earthquake’ hashtag to go with it? The answer is no. An earthquake is an earthquake is an earthquake. If everybody says it often enough, the chances are one just happened, tag or no tag.

It sounds a lot like this is something that Twitter is dealing with internally, by building out its own search engine to be able to make sense of tweets, and to index them.


“What’s the hashtag for Affiliate Summit?”

Well, what is it? If you ask then somebody will tell you, but wouldn’t it be better - and more structured - to have a hashtag directory? 

Twitter already uses a wiki to collate the millions of Twitter apps that have been launched, and I reckon some kind of hashtag directory / wiki is the next obvious step. It would be very handy for events, and would help Twitter to figure out which hashtags were being used for events. is already boxing in this area.


Hashtags can be useful (especially for events) but they’ve been gamed to death. If only they’d thought of ‘funtags’ then we wouldn’t be in this mess! But as it stands the value of hashtags, at least as far as the trending topics are concerned, needs to be seriously deflated


As with any popular, growing website, that is based on algorithms and has lots of traffic to redirect, there will be lots of efforts to spam it. Consider Digg, which is now a completely different beast from when it first launched. It’s also a vastly more popular website, with 25m users (many of whom are not from its ‘core’ geek demographic). It has had to adapt and change, and Twitter will too.

One thing Digg introduced to combat spam was its recommendation engine. Diggs from this personalised section of the website are more valuable, and more coveted, and send more information about your personal interests back to Digg. 

This, I think, is where Twitter is heading. By introducing personalisation features it will become more relevant to its users. We’ll all see different trending topics, tailored to our interests, our network, our WeFollow tags, the content of our tweets… all of which Twitter can use to figure out what to show us. Google shows different search results to logged-in users (who have this feature enabled), and Twitter can too.

On top of that, I agree with Robin's suggestion to allow users to hide / bury those trends that they’re not interested in. Twitter can allow users to tell it specifically what they do and don’t like. It’s a real no-brainer. The ‘3words’ meme is amusing if you’re in the mood to be amused, but if I ever see another trending topic on my page relating to the Jonas Brothers then I’m going to take matters into my own hands, hunt them down, and force them to listen to Devo on repeat until they do the honourable thing. Do you get access to Twitter in prison?

To sum up: Down with hashtags! Up with personalisation! Down with hashtags! Up with personalisation! Down with hashtags! Up with personalisation!

[Image by coljay72 via Flickr, various rights reserved]

Chris Lake

Published 29 May, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (6)

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Twitter is an incredible success. But there is many noise ... indeed.

By the way, do you now that we are closed to the 2 billionth tweet ? gives the "instant" twitter speed and try to gives an reach date estimation.


about 9 years ago


Kate Wooding

Why don't we just use different tags for different types of trending topic? For example, the hash could be used for news, an asterisk (*) for fun, and one of these > for events. This is easily extendable (there are loads of symbols on the keyboard that don't get used very much and are just looking to be put to good use), can be implemented immediately, and doesn't need Twitter to develop more clever stuff.  We just need to agree what symbol to use for the different types of topics. Just a thought!

about 9 years ago


bill fischer

we looked at using hashtags for taxonomy but it was clear that that approach couldn't scale for reasons that you and Robin put forward.  We use natural language intelligence combined with metadata in order to index and understand tweets. We find that this handles gaming and signal/noise issues in a more manageable way.




about 9 years ago


Mark Bockenstedt


The hashtag itself is already a difficult concept for new users to grasp. We see people every day asking what's a hashtag and what's it used for. To add more complexity onto an already ad-hoc mechanism would be terribly confusing, especially for new users.

about 9 years ago

Adam Tudor

Adam Tudor, Senior Digital Marketing Manager at The Black Hole

Quite amusing really - giving too much 'power' too quickly to the people in social networks means that things like this can happen!

Reminded me of all the fuss over Google Bombs, essentially a similar concept but for search engines.

about 9 years ago


Gina Chen

I may be the only one (seems I am) but multiple hashtags don't bother me at all. If it's a trending topic I'm not interested in, I ignore it.

In general, I do like hashtags -- and don't minds multiple uses of them although I'd say more than three in a tweet is getting excessive -- because it does help me follow things.

I was following the International Communication Association conference last weekend in Chicago, for example, and I felt almost like I was their by following the #ica09 hashtags. (But, then, I'm probably the geek you speak of.)

A hashtag directory would be great -- but new ideas come up all the time, so it would need to be super fluid.

I love your idea about Twitter buying Bit.Ly. Two of my favorite things -- together!

about 9 years ago

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