2009 As Seen Through Twitter Hashtags
You may have seen TwitterTwitter
’s recently announced most discussed topics of ‘09. The list really highlights the gravity of this important year: A new US President was sworn into office, celebrities died and celebrities were born, there were revolutions, there were pandemics, and technology continued its rapid advance.
2009 has also been a huge year for Twitter itself, as the network has rapidly become the sieve through which all real-time news and culture flows. Here, we break down the most influential topics that passed through Twitter this year, and discuss what they mean for users and the service itself.
On January 16th, Micah Baldwin of Lijit Networks started Follow Fridays. It wasn’t a marketing test or viral experiment — it was just Micah being Micah. By the end of that Friday the hashtag #followfriday had been created (it wasn’t in the original tweet) and used by so many people that most of them didn’t even know who started it anymore — it was just one of those Twitter things.
The most remarkable fact about Follow Friday is that it spread naturally without plan, hypothesis, or agenda. The way Micah’s simple tweet turned into a part of web culture overnight is just one example of Twitter’s unparalleled ability to spread information and ideas organically and rapidly to a large number of people — a trend we will see again and again.
Follow Friday also set the trend for other day-of-the-week hashtags like #musicmonday, which was the most used hashtag of 2009, #winewednesday, and #rtthursday to name a few. Though there are many daily tweet memes, Follow Friday and Music Monday in particular provide great examples of how people intuitively create structure and order in unorganized networks like Twitter — another trend we will see more than once throughout the year as people use Twitter to share, discuss, and rally support.
Hope, Freedom, and Microblogs
There are few things that will instigate a discussion like politics. But neither the left nor the right dominated the political discussion on Twitter this year. Instead, the discussion revolved around much larger issues like hope and freedom – issues that played out in events like Obama’s inauguration and the Moldovan and Iranian revolutions.
President Obama is a first of many things, and for this discussion it is particularly notable that he is the first President to truly embrace social media. Fittingly, he is also the first President to have his inauguration covered by the masses on Twitter. The inauguration was a signal of hope and progress to the world, but for Twitter it was bitter-sweet.
On the one hand, Obama’s inauguration is an excellent example of how a service like Twitter can bring the atmosphere of the moment to people around the world. It proved Twitter’s significance as a real-time global tool.
On the other hand, it was one of the first clear signs that Twitter’s search capabilities would not live up to potential. A quick search on #inaug09 or #inauguration targeted on the D.C. area during or after the inauguration resulted in errors, proving that Twitter wasn’t quite able to keep up with the real-time demands of the event.
Twitter’s search, as wonderful as it is, still falls short of its potential. The current search results don’t even go back a month, which makes you wonder why Twitter leaves this enticing option open to the public.
From a technical perspective, it seems highly unlikely that Twitter will be able to store the number of conversations taking place around events like this any time soon. Even if they did manage to bring the potential of time-sensitive queries into full effect, the current system for handling customer service leaves much to be desired.
The most popular topic under the help tab on Twitter is “tweets missing from search.” Further reading reveals that there’s basically nothing that can be done if your tweets aren’t showing up in a search, which could prove problematic for companies trying to use Twitter for hashtag based promotions or events. While these problems are understandable, the lack of human support for these types of issues is still frustrating.
The Obama inauguration isn’t the only event to fall victim to these types of issues, but it serves as a good example of a large event that missed out on full potential. With the news that Twitter was actually profitable this year, we can hope that they’ll be able to spend some money on making search more reliable in the future.
#pman and #iranelection
A few months after the excitement of the inauguration faded, the political atmosphere of Twitter was set ablaze again by a series of protests in the country of Moldova. Young people in the country began to rally in the country’s capital Chisinau and organized large protests through Twitter with the hashtag #pman, which stands for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, the main square in Chisinau.
After news broke that the Communist party had won elections in Moldova, the politically enthusiastic youth took to the streets and to Twitter. The revolution, dubbed by some “The Grape Revolution” and by others “The Twitter Revolution,” failed. However, it still serves as a testament to the power of social networks in mobilizing individuals behind a cause.
Strikingly, a similar revolution took place in IranIran
just a few months later at the end of June that carried on well into July. After current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was announced the winner of a June 12th election, the country of Iran exploded with protests from people who suspected that the election results had been manipulated to favor Ahmadinejad over the opposing candidate, Mir-Houssein Mosavi.
For several weeks, Twitter was abuzz with #iranelection and #neda – short for Neda Agha-Soltan, a gunfire victim from the protests whose video-captured death spread quickly over the Internet. Twitter users from all over the world changed their profile backgrounds and avatars to the color green – Mosavi’s color – and voiced their support for the Iranian protestors.
Each of these revolutions have become known for the part Twitter played in mobilizing and reporting the events that took place, and the hashtags formed around these revolutions are powerful examples of how individuals will come together through social networks to rally behind a cause.
Furthermore, the rate at which information was distributed through Twitter during these events signaled to many the nail in the coffin for mainstream media, which was consistently outpaced by tweets coming live from location.
CNN’s complete lack of coverage early in the Iranian election crisis also spurred a vicious backlash from Twitter users (who were already well aware of the situation) in the form of a new hashtag: #cnnfail.
At first glance this was a strong indicator that the real-time web was finally beginning to replace traditional news sources. However, while traditional media and news sources have lost significant ground in terms of growth and influence over the past several years, there are still many significant limitations to relying on Twitter, the blogosphere, and citizen journalism for news. One such limitation is the general lack of accountability which often results in the distribution of false information.
On multiple occasions during the Iranian election, tweets were sent out containing false information. Even though the people typically sending these tweets weren’t making an active effort to spread incorrect information, quality fact-checking was rarely paired with the hastily sent out tweets. In addition, once the Iranian government caught on to the Twitter movement, they took active efforts to distribute false information through Twitter accounts, and identifying accurate information once again became difficult and complex.
A Timely and Convenient News Source
But the Iranian election wasn’t Twitter’s first breakthrough in real-time news this year.
On January 15th, after US Airways flight 1549 flew through a flock of geese, pilot Chesley B. Sullenberger was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Miraculously, he landed without incurring any fatalities.
The first “reporter” on the scene was Janis Krums, an entrepreneur from Florida whose Twitter bio now describes him as “the Miracle on the Hudson photo guy.” Krums just happened to be passing by on a commuter ferry. As the ferry approached the plane to help evacuate passengers, Janis snapped a photograph with his iPhone and uploaded it to Twitpic — a move that would gain him thousands of followers in several days and add fuel to the fiery debate over the place of old and new media.
This kind of first-to-the-scene reporting is one of the main reasons Twitter is valued as a news source, but speed isn’t the only reason people value hearing about news through Twitter. Convenience also plays a major role. For other major trending topics like #duststorm, where a strange orange dust settled all over eastern AustraliaAustralia
(resulting in one of my favorite pictures of the year), and #balloonboy, where a boy was purportedly carried away in his parents’ weather monitoring balloon, Twitter wasn’t quicker to report the news than others. In fact, much of the discussion on Twitter was simply regurgitated from mainstream media, and that’s often the case.
When it comes to convenience though, Twitter is unmatched. Twitter provides a comprehensive stream from numerous news outlets, ensuring that anyone monitoring the activity through Twitter will typically get the most complete coverage of the event by simply monitoring a relevant hashtag like #balloonboy or #duststorm. As long as Twitter remains a link-sharing hub, it will hold its place as one of the most convenient, and therefore valued, news aggregators online.
The Death of Pop
This brings us to the single biggest news piece of the year: the death of the King of Pop.
It may come as no surprise, but Michael Jackson’s death stopped the Internet.
No, really. At various points in time GoogleGoogle
chose not to return results for Michael Jackson queries (under the assumption they were under automated attack), Twitter showed the fail whale, WikipediaWikipedia
froze the Michael Jackson page from edits, and 4chan crashed. For a very interesting timeline of how Michael Jackson’s death spread across the web, see Danny Dover’s post “A Bad Day for Search Engines”.
Danny points out interestingly that Wikipedia was actually faster than Google or Twitter to pick up on the news – further reinforcing the fact that though speed is the defining factor of “real-time,” it isn’t the end-all-be-all of a service that wants to be a news hub.
Even though Wikipedia beat Twitter to the punch, Twitter is still a more convenient medium for news due to trending topics and the rapid nature of how news spreads on social networks. Twitter brings the news to the person, rather than the person to the news.
Technology and Science
came onto the scene a mystery and for many, it still is. Wave stands out for several reasons, but perhaps the most interesting is that Wave was the most discussed piece of technology on Twitter all year.
Wave was discussed more than MacWorld, which Apple fans are notoriously noisy about, and also more than Apple’s new operating system Snow Leopard. This raises the question: are Google fans more devoted than Apple fans, or did Google just plan appropriately to drive hype?
Microsoft is generally regarded as Google’s main competitor, but Apple is undoubtedly on the radar as well. With Google moving into the operating system market and Apple moving towards cloud services, it’s clear that Google and Apple are playing for the same stakes. As these two giants continue to move into each other’s territory, it will be very interesting to see who holds onto the share of voice between what PSFK calls the top two brands of 2009.
NASA loves Twitter. They use Twitter in space.
When your service is used from space, you know you’re doing well. In November, #nasatweetup reached number three on the trending topics on Twitter. This was NASA’s fifth tweetup and the first tweetup to be held at the Kennedy Space Center during a shuttle launch.
NASA’s use of Twitter is a good sign to marketers that Twitter can be used to create valuable connections. On Mike Massimino’s Open Web Awards page, NASA’s web site explains clearly why Twitter is of value to their organization:
Twitter is a social media tool that offers a new vehicle for NASA to interact with non-traditional audiences in a dynamic, viral conversation about space, the merits of exploring the unknown, and its relevance to everyday life here on our home planet. Twitter allows citizens of this planet to converse with and learn from scientists, engineers, policy-makers, and space travelers.
Any organization or company can benefit from using Twitter in similar ways to generate conversations about the topic at hand, answer questions, discuss benefits, and create relevancy.
A review of the year wouldn’t be complete without mentioning swine flu. Unfortunately, there is little positive to say about Twitter’s role in discussing or propagating news about the pandemic.
Twitter isn’t a cure-all (no pun intended). While it has proven to be extremely useful for a variety purposes, managing public opinion and fear over pandemics is not one of them.
Evgeny Morozov, who also covered the revolution in Moldova and Iran, points out a few of Twitter’s shortcomings in this arena in an article at Foreign Policy. He writes:
“Let’s just do some thinking about what’s possible here. One of the least discussed elements in the cyber-attacks that struck Estonia in 2007 was psychological operations. There was, for example, a whole series of text messages aimed specifically at Estonia’s vast Russian-speaking populations urging them to drive their cars at 5km/h at a specific time of the day; quite predictably, this led to a hold-up in traffic (you can watch a TV report in Estonian about this here). Thus, a buy-in from the most conspiracy-driven 1% of the population may be enough to stall traffic in the entire city. We could easily expect even more devastating consequences from the public scares generated by global pandemics.”
After reading some of the tweets that have gone out under #swineflu, it’s not hard to believe that a hefty number of the conspiracy-driven population resides on Twitter and uses it to distribute their fears.
However, there is hope. While Twitter, or any medium with such a large reach, can be used to spread fear, it can also be used to spread knowledge. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been a bright spot throughout the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and their tweets were both informative and calming.
Just like NASA is an excellent model for organizations looking to use Twitter for their benefit, the CDC is a great example of how government or charitable organizations can use Twitter to inform the population. Thankfully, their emergency account now has over one million followers — we can only hope they get retweets!
These are by no means anything and everything that hit the trending topics list in 2009. This list doesn’t even cover all of Twitter’s most discussed topics, but it does hit home on the biggest and most influential, hopefully giving you a bit more insight into each. If you have one that you feel is particularly deserving of a mention and would like to break it down for us, drop it in the comments for all to see.
More Twitter resources from Mashable:
- Follow Friday Trends: How Twitter Lists are Changing #FollowFriday
- HOW TO: Use Twitter’s New Retweet Feature
- 10 Ways You Can Use Twitter Lists
- 5 Ways to Write Retweetable Tweets
- TWEET IDEAS: 13 Things to Do on Twitter Besides Tweet
- Twitter for Beginners: 5 Steps for Better Tweeting