Trending Topics (the #TT’s) are like the daily Oscars of Twitter—the most popular things people are tweeting about at any given moment.

The Controversy: Thousands of people have accused Twitter of censoring topics at times, most recently, people are saying Twitter censored #OccupyWallStreet.

The Problem: Twitter has done a terrible job of educating people about how #TT’s work.

In my experience, 95% of people don’t understand how trending topics are selected.

What you need to know:

► Trends Are NOT Always The Most Popular Things Being Tweeted About.
► Twitter Sometimes Removes Still-Popular Topics From Trending.
► Political Tweets Sometimes Suspiciously Stop Trending.
► Twitter BLOCKS Some  Tweets From Counting Towards Trending Topics.
► Twitter Has A “Secret Formula” For Selecting Trending Topics.
► Twitter Does Censor “Obscene” Topics—And Plans More Censoring.

1. Trending Topics Are NOT Always The Most Popular Things People Are Tweeting About:

Weird, huh?

But for a topic to become a trend, it actually has to meet several criteria beyond just being “popular:”

► It has to have no foul language in it.
► It has to be popular with a lot of people in a short period of time—it has to “peak” in popularity.
► Total tweets AND the total number of people tweeting BOTH matter. But unless there are tweets from a lot of people—what Twitter calls “widespread popularity“—total tweets will NOT matter.

But that’s still not enough to become a trend! Even when a lot of people are tweeting about something, it won’t become a #TT unless it also meets one of these other criteria:

  1. It has to be a new topic that has never been popular before, or…
  2. It has to be a previously popular topic that has become popular with a new group of people.

So lots of tweets is not enough. And lots of people tweeting is not enough. A topic also has to be newly popular, or popular with a new group of people, as determined by Twitter’s automated algorithm.

2. Why Twitter Removes Still-Popular Topics From Trending:

Some popular topics stay on the #TT list for a long time because more and more new people start tweeting about them. But some topics continue to get tons of tweets for a long time, yet are removed from the #TT list quickly—because no new people begin tweeting about them.

The same people saying the same things will NOT keep a topic trending.

The classic example of a very popular topic that is NOT a #TT is Justin Bieber. #Bieber tweets are virtually always popular on Twitter, but it’s always the same people tweeting.

3. Why Twitter Stops Some Tweets About Political Events From Trending.

This is a very frustrating feature of how Twitter’s algorithm selects Trending Topics. Political events (or topics) can become deselected from the #TT in several ways:

► An event becomes “old news” before it happens

Scenario: People begin tweeting about the event in the days beforehand, and it becomes a #TT. But by the time the event arrives, it is “old news,” and unless a lot of new people begin tweeting about it, it won’t be on the #TT list anymore.

When #OccupyWallStreet trended everywhere worldwide, but not in the United States people said Twitter censored it. Did they? No, because actually it had previously trended in the U.S., and now there were no more new people in the U.S. talking about it—the new people talking about it were elsewhere in the world.

► An event fails to “peak” in popularity

Scenario: Thousands of people tweet about a topic. If the tweets are all sent out in the same few minutes, it could easily become a #TT. But if those people send their tweets out over the course of several days, the topic will likely not trend.

► It wasn’t blocked—you just missed it

I see this all the time. Topics trend briefly, then the algorithm determines they are no longer really “peaking” and so they are removed. And then people say “Why isn’t this trending?” It did trend, but you missed it.

► But I have proof Twitter censored something!

Okay, but I’ve checked many such claims, and in each case, a much simpler explanation was obvious. Plus, every “proof” I’ve ever seen has been based around how many tweets are being sent, and trending is not just about the volume of tweets. (Plus, if Twitter really wanted to censor something…wouldn’t it want to hide the tweets themselves?)

4. Twitter BLOCKS Some Tweets From Counting Towards Trending Topics:

► Twitter counts people more than tweets

Remember, Twitter’s algorithm counts how many people are tweeting about something—not just total tweets. So the same person tweeting 50 times about the same topic can be counted as “one person tweeting repeatedly about the topic” instead of “50 tweets about the topic.”

Twitter even says it could suspend your account if you “Repeatedly Tweet the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending/trending higher.”

► Twitter doesn’t show all tweets in search results.

Tweets that do not show up in Twitter search results won’t be counted towards making a topic begin, restart or continue trending. Reasons tweets go missing can include:

  1. Your profile has no name or bio.
  2. Your account was just created.
  3. You have almost never tweeted before.
  4. No one has ever responded to your tweets—you don’t converse, are never retweeted and never mentioned.

Even in these cases, most or all tweets will still be shown in search. But some might not. Read more about how Tweets go missing here.

► Some Tweets are penalized!

Do NOT do any of the things listed below! Not only will your tweets possibly NOT count towards trending topics, you could even have your Twitter account suspended:

  1. Adding one or more topics/hashtags to an unrelated Tweet in an attempt to gain attention in search.
  2. Repeatedly Tweeting the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending/trending higher.
  3. Tweeting about each trending topic in turn in order to drive traffic to your profile, especially when mixed with advertising.
  4. Listing the trending topics in combination with a request to be followed.
  5. Tweeting about a trending topic and posting a misleading link to something unrelated.

5. What Is Twitter’s Secret Formula For Selecting Trending Topics?

While Twitter doesn’t reveal the exact formula, they have provided some details about how #TT’s are selected. The main things to remember are:
► Twitter may count total people tweeting more than total tweets.
► Twitter counts topics that are newly popular. This means topics must be “breaking” or “peaking” in order to trend.
► Topics that have been popular for awhile will not trend again (or will not keep trending) unless new people begin tweeting about them in large numbers in a short period of time.
► If Twitter allowed simply whatever is being tweeted about the most to always trend, large groups could dominate the trending topics all the time. In fact, this is what used to happen before Twitter implemented its algorithm. The main group that dominated the #TT’s was…Justin Bieber fans.

Twitter says:

“Twitter Trends are automatically generated by an algorithm that attempts to identify topics that are being talked about more right now than they were previously.

“The Trends list is designed to help people discover the ‘most breaking’ breaking news from across the world, in real-time. The Trends list captures the hottest emerging topics, not just what’s most popular. Put another way, Twitter favors novelty over popularity…”

6. Why Twitter Will Be Censoring MORE Trending Topics In the Future.

As first reported on the TweetSmarter blog, Twitter is considering censoring “clearly offensive” topics in the future.

Bonus: What Areas Can You View Twitter Trends For?

You can click to view what’s trending worldwide, what’s trending in your country, or what’s trending in your local area. Here are a couple of examples of country choices and local choices in the U.S.

World Trend Areas U.S. Trend Areas

Click either image to enlarge

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Written by Dave Larson

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  • I don’t believe there were so many tweets about #OccupyWallStreet even before it ever happened. I call b.s. And that, furthermore, not many new people said new things about it after it did start. #thinkswe’reidiots

    • Perhaps you didn’t notice that #OccupyWallStreet trended in the U.S., and then around the world? Or maybe I misunderstood your comment? If so, my apologies!

  • Anonymous

    That doesn’t alter the fact that apparently #OccupyWallStreet was trending in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world at the same time it *wasn’t* trending in the U.S. I repeat, this seems fishy.

    •  #OccupyWallStreet trended in the U.S. first, where it eventually become “old news” and no longer “trendy,” and then trended in the rest of the world.

  • Liz Pullen

    Where are you getting your information? You sound awfully authoritative about something that Twitter has chosen to say little about. Twitter hasn’t revealed details of their algorithm so I don’t see how you can say what does or doesn’t carry a lot of weight. 

    The only aspect they have talked much about is that Twitter raises the threshold of how many Tweets it takes for a topic to trend after a certain length of time. So, if it took 10,000 Tweets over an hour for Justin Bieber to trend in 2009, it now takes 25,000 Tweets over an hour (I’m making up these figures). 

    Just curious if you have some inside scoop or these are your observations because Twitter has said little about how their algorithm select trends.

    • Leo this is great stuff. Could you post the source links to where you got some of this twitter info? It would be a great resource.
      ~Tammy, CEO @MarketMeSuite:twitter 

    • Hi Liz and Tammy, thanks so much for stopping by here. Yes, absolutely, will get the links over to you here! 🙂

      • One thing you brought up was that certain things that have trended before won’t likely trend again, but surely #stevejobs has trended before?For the record, I don’t think Twitter is particularly out to get anyone, but on a more general level… some info is deemed less newsworthy than others, and we all just have to think about who is deciding that for us…

    • I’ve sent a tweet to both you and Tammy with a link to more information (and replied to Tammy’s similar question below).

  • William Bracey

    OK, so the article is telling me Twitter is censoring trending topics.  Just because it’s based on some BS formula doesn’t make it right.  It shouldn’t be called Trends if this is how it is done.  It should be something like Twitter’s Highlighted Topics or something.

    • If Twitter trends were only based on popularity, things like “love,” “hate,” and “Justin Bieber” would dominate many other topics—which is what used to happen before the algorithm was implemented.

      Of course, the name “trending topics” doesn’t tell you much at all. If it were called “suddenly recently trending new topics” it would make more sense, but that and other variations aren’t very catchy 🙂

      • Tdjakes2010

        Can you explain the discrepancy from something like trendsmap to twitter? After the amount of new people tweeting #OccupyBoston tonight (because of the arrests etc), it surely should’ve been trending tonight at least in boston, and trendsmap showed that it was trending in dozens of places around the world and in the US. Twitter had Boston PD and Veterans trending, but the related occupyboston was not. The volume of #occupyboston tweets surely had to be at its peak this evening.

        • It’s not when tweets peak, it’s whether they peak enough, and whether they are new enough.

          As I noted in the political section, political events often trend early in the area they happen in, sometimes before the actual event. The other thing that happens commonly with pre-planned events, is that the volume of tweets builds slowly, and never really “spikes” or trends. While may technically “peak” (more tweets than at other times) it may not really “spike” or trend, which means that those tweets increase much more than before.
          Overall, I think it may be a failure of Twitter’s algo that things that get a lot of tweets for several days don’t actually trend at the time they peak because they don’t increase enough over general level of tweets, but it’s hard to say because Twitter’s algo is secret.

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  • Thank you for letting me know about these Twitter’s secrets, where do you get these information?

  • Reasons my hashtags never go anywhere? No one has ever responded to your tweets—you don’t converse, are never retweeted and never mentioned.

    • I’ve tweeted over 142,000 times, just not to anybody in particular. So when I jump on the TT bandwagon with a hashtag, my tweet doesn’t show up in the hashtag timeline.

      • Remember when Justin Bieber trended for well over 6 months? #OWS can’t even get a foothold in TT because of censoring. It’s BS. Sometimes it only takes 20-50 tweets in 15 minutes to be trending immediately, unless you are Occupy.

  • Diane

    How do RTs factor in to the #TT?

  • Twitter is now censoring conservative political activists. So people had started joining its not that bad though except the UI and design. Should have a look

    • Beartopia

      Funny you mention that. I’m hearing equal accusations of twitter censoring Bernie or things critical of Hilary.

  • Carl Jones

    A lot of my tweets are delayed of don’t go on. Anything regarding Cameron, the security services and Daily Mail tweets. Strange. I was chatting to a guy who is a bit out there and has a modest folowing. He has looked at the analytics behind his tweets and he says the algorithms work at limiting exposure.

    • watching crows

      This is true for a variety of hashtags, accounts, and selected topics. I recently did a backtrack of Twitter’s security and DATAMINR’s activity regarding my account and was led to a very professional looking site for child porn. I immediately backed out, but then decided to return and take screen shots for the police. All of the links disappeared! I tweeted out screen shots of the messages and URLs (service unavailable, this site not found, etc.) and informed Twitter. …..crickets – nothing. Do you notice that key words are underlined with a series of red dots? What’s up with that? Tweets not sent in a timely fashion, or at all – again, what’s up with that? Also, there seems to be a proliferation of phantom followers and pornographic teaser requests that appear and disappear when they are blocked or muted. There is something nefarious going on at Twitter. This rant will no doubt be discredited or my account terminated but the truth will eventually prevail. Can hardly wait for Apple to launch their social media platform.