Teenyboppers Outwit Twitter

Two nagging questions have been answered for me in a single news story this morning: Who is this Justin Bieber fellow I keep hearing about and why is his name always on Twitter's much maligned "trending topics" list?

Bieber, as I am presumably the last to know, is a singer of the teen heartthrob variety (my daughter is 8; when she's 12, I will miss this blissful ignorance). Bieber's name has long appeared - every day, or so it seems -- on Twitter's "trending topics" list because, well, because his youthful fans made sure of it by tweeting about him incessantly.

(2010's 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

Who cares? Well, Twitter and at least some of its grownup users do because "trending topics" is supposed to tell the Twitter audience what stories or subjects are hottest right at the moment, not which pop idol is topping the charts.

So Twitter developers set about changing the algorithm behind "tending topics" to give the list less Justin Bieber and more presumably substantive subject matter.

Here's how Twitter broke the news to Bieber (in a tweet, naturally; TT stands for "trending topics"):

@justinbieber the TT tweak is nothing personal. It was long planned & better shows what is emerging right now. See http://bit.ly/byhJ7M Thx

And this change was posted to Twitter's "help" section last Friday:

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 think that trending topics which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter are the most interesting.

That was Twitter's plan ... and at first it seemed to work, as Bieber's name was bounced from the list.

Bieber fans, however, were not about to be deterred ... at least not so easily.

According to this Time account:

" ... by Sunday, fans had gotten Bieber back on the charts, spelling his name either Twieber or Jieber to get around the algorithm's fix. The result? Bieber fans now own two spots in Twitter's list and even inspired loyalists for another tween favorite to follow suit. Jick Nonas - a play on Disney singer Nick Jonas - hit Twitter's list early Monday as well."

Teens win, roll the credits?

Not so fast. As I type this late morning on Tuesday, trending topics shows no sign of Justin Bieber - traditional spelling or any variation. Victory for Twitter then? Not entirely, as Jonas (I have heard of him) still sits atop the list, where he is presumably no more welcomed by Twitter than is Bieber.

The note from Twitter announcing the anti-heartthrob push acknowledged that "this is very much a work in progress."

The results so far have shown that to be true.

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