Trending Topics: What they mean and how to use them in journalism


If something is ‘trending’, it is being discussed and/or mentioned on Twitter as part of a keyword or hashtag phrase. From Twitter:

“Twitter’s Trending Topics 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.

Most popular trending topics in 2010:

The results show that people were most concerned about serious news stories from around the world but also spent time discussing entertainment in the form of Justin Bieber and the newest Harry Potter film.

Any self-respecting journalist knows the importance of breaking news and so it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the Twittersphere cos we often hear about it on there before AP gets hold of it.

They’re useful if you want to narrow trends down to countries or even cities to see what people are talking about in specific geographic areas. Think of it as a virtual vox-pop.

It’s also useful to gauge a range of opinions on a given topic in s very short space of time and without leaving your desk. If you want to follow a story more closely as it develops, you can do by clicking the hashtag (#), which collates all the tweets with that word or phrase into one place.

Most newsrooms now have a screen setup with Twitterfall or something similar- an app that brings together hashtag and keyword searches in real time.

But we must be careful when collecting data from hashtags and trending topics on Twitter. Although a global phenomenon with over 106 million users, we cannot over-generalise trending topics to be a realistic cross-section of the opinions of all members in any given community. Most Twitter users are young professionals or college students living in first-world developed countries with readily available internet access.

Digital Surgeons have put together a great infographic which compares Twitter an Facebook users. The majority of Twitter users are slightly older than those who use Facebook most frequently (26-30 compared with 16-24 age bracket). Plus Twitter users tend to be more technology savvy as a higher precentage of users log in on mobile devices compared with Facebook users.

To sum up then, Trending Topics are useful as a starting point to find breaking news and research opinion and comment on particular news items as a springboard for further research, but should not be used as a valid cross-section of society.

By Lucy Hewitt

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One response to “Trending Topics: What they mean and how to use them in journalism

  1. Pingback: A User Generated alternative to My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings: Savvy Chavvy explained « generatedbyusers

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