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. 

NEWS

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 Bit.ly in the first instance.

BREAKING NEWS

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.

EVENTS

“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. Tagal.us is already boxing in this area.

FUN FUN FUN

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

MAKE IT PERSONAL

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]