Twitter users are up in arms over the Twitter Quick Bar, which pundit John Gruber termed the "Dickbar" after Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a forced trending topics bar appearing at the top of the new iPhone Twitter client. To some extent, this is just whining—there are so many Twitter clients out there, it's easy to find one with the layout you prefer. But it also shows the bigger problem with Twitter's trending topics, which the service has managed very poorly since it became a mass medium.
Real estate is precious on small phone screens, and users demand that every pixel be spent on something relevant. People are willing to make an exception for ads on free apps; after all, developers need to pay the bills. But the trending topics tend to spotlight micro-communities that don't overlap much with each other. As an optional means of discovery, they're mildly interesting. Forced upon us, they bombard us with irrelevant data that breaks down our carefully constructed social-networking comfort zones.
Twitter started out, years ago, as a social service for a common techno-clique who all attended the South by Southwest music conference, so trending topics made sense. But since then, it's expanded and fragmented into a mass medium made up of non-overlapping micro-communities. Everybody uses Twitter differently, but almost everybody consciously or unconsciously cultivates their feed. The trending topics are like a loud stranger wandering into your invitation-only party.
The Quick Bar is really about advertising, of course. Twitter is trying to make money off "promoted topics" for movies and consumer products. But I don't think that's the source of the real anger here. Most people see ads as a necessary evil so we can get free stuff. But we don't understand why our screens are full of jibber-jabber about Brazilian TV presenters.
Twitter published a report this week of the top trends of 2010 from the 25 billion tweets sent over its network this past year. In their Year in Review, they show lists of trending topics organized by subject, everything from news, to people, technology, sport and television. A lot of news events figure predominantly, such as the Haiti earthquake and gulf oil spill, as well as many topics of popular culture like Harry Potter, Glee, and the FIFA World Cup. It reflects well what the world has been buzzing about over the year, or at least that portion of the world that's on Twitter.
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