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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Trends might be misleading us to what’s actually important

Americans care more about Kim Kardashian than gun violence. At least that’s what my Facebook trending topics feed is telling me right now.

Last month, it was Adam Levine’s new back tattoo overshadowing violence in Syria. Throughout the summer, it was Lady Gaga tripping on stage over pretty much everything else.

Surely, we should pack it in and just give up at this point. If this is how our nation spends its time, then we have truly become an intellectually-barren wasteland devoid of all reason and sophistication.

Jesus, come quickly.

However, Facebook users may notice something else strange about their trending topics. Every once in a while, a topic that you personally enjoy will trend on top for a surprising amount of time, perhaps even a full week.

Could it be that the whole Facebook-using world actually loves Neopets just as much as you do?

No. No it couldn’t.

Because, despite what crotchety, old Internet alarmists would have you think, trending topics on Facebook are not a pure measure of what’s on everyone’s minds at any given time.

That aspect of the site is actually based on an algorithm, which according to technology website Re/code “ … takes into account a few personal things, like where you live and what pages you follow. But primarily it looks for two broader signals: Topics that are being mentioned a lot and topics that receive a dramatic spike in mentions.”

This means that on any given day, you are viewing a combination of things that actually are being talked about a lot and less popular things that you might personally be interested in.

So the good news is those constant trending topics about people being murdered in your hometown, for example, don’t necessarily mean that your hometown has a statistically disproportionate number of murders.

Facebook just thinks you might be more interested in hearing about murder from where you grew up, as opposed to all of the murder happening everywhere else.

How considerate.

The bad news is a lot of people actually are talking about Kim’s new earrings or Adam’s new back tattoo at any given time.

After the attacks on Paris in November, that topic was trending throughout the week because a massive amount of people were legitimately talking about it online.

Facebook was actually pretty transparent about their mechanism when the trending feature was added to the site in 2014.

At the time, they described it as “… a personalized list of popular topics for each user, combining their interests with content getting the most attention across the entire platform …”

The current help center description for the service is a little more vague, but ultimately still honest, reading, “The topics you see are based on a number of factors including engagement, timeliness, pages you’ve liked and your location.”

So to some extent, trending topics on Facebook are as much about advertising as they are about providing you with the most relevant daily news.

You’ll get to read about the newest terrorist attack as well as that new video game you’re now going to buy.

It’s also worth considering even the truly most-discussed topics on your feed are subject to a certain bias. Facebook is a social media platform after all, not a true news outlet.

What are you most likely to share on your friend’s wall: a funny GIF of Lady Gaga falling over or a sad video about the latest with the refugees in Syria?

So perhaps don’t start decrying the downfall of American culture just yet.

According to the Pew Research Center, the current generation is actually the most informed ever. But we, like literally every generation before us, also like to gossip, to joke and to complain.

And we also appreciate the fine art form that is the cat video.

Follow Greg Castro on Twitter.

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