Twitter and the Gaza Flotilla

Above is a dynamically updated chart from Trendistic.com, a service that tracks trending topics on Twitter. It shows how much Twitter users have been using the hashtag #flotilla over the course of the past week, and naturally this includes a peak since this morning. According to Trendistic, #flotilla is one of the top trending topics at the moment, accounting 0.78% of tweets worldwide.

But you wouldn't know that from Twitter itself, which has #4wordsbeforedeath trending. It was popular last night, but as this time only accounts for 0.18% of tweets. So what gives?

There is some speculation that Twitter may be banning #flotilla from its trending calculations. Twitter can ban common words so as not to give false results. But #flotilla is hardly a common word. Last June, Twitter intervened (at the request of the State Dept.) to keep its servers going when #iranelection was trending. It was rightly applauded for doing so. So what's up with not allowing #flotilla to trend, and redirecting searches on the word to the homepage (just try it from your account.)

Update: There have been suggestions that Twitter's recently announced new rules on trending may be to blame. On Twitter's site, it says:

UPDATE: Recent Trending Topics Improvements

5/14/2010:

Twitter is about what is happening right now, and we have recently updated our trending topics algorithm to reflect this. The new algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the "most breaking" news stories from across the world. (We had previously built in this 'emergent' algorithm for all local trends, described below.) We think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting. While this is very much a work in progress, with this tweak we have taken a big step toward capturing how trends quickly emerge and grow on Twitter.  We also think it's compelling to know what the "most popular" topics are, and we will look to capture this in some way in the future.

It is important to note that this new algorithm does not "block" any topics from trending. If topics you saw regularly in your Trending Topics menu have disappeared or are not showing as consistently as before, do a saved search for them on your homepage. That way, in one click, you can view search results for topics that matter most to you. Also consider localizing your Trending Topics menu, as shown below.

These changes do not really help explain why #flotilla is not being allowed to show as trending. First, it is a recently popular topic. Second, Twitter's website does not allow you to do a saved search for them — when you enter flotilla or #flotilla as a search term, it returns the full latest twitter feed, not tweets with these words. The system has clearly been set up to ignore "flotilla" both in trending and in search. I've asked Twitter for an explanation, which I'll post here if/when I receive it.

I should also note that #freedomflotilla is now trending.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.