Almost anything can become a trend these days on Twitter, and like a good trend, it never lasts.
This is the Age of Information, and yes, media is a constant stream of new content to analyze, mock, and Tweet. But Twitter trends are not that simplistic. Trends can represent a plethora of news, subjects, and whimsical discussions and thus can move into the realm of the topically inappropriate. Because trends can be about anything, it is easy for their subjects to become violent, obscene, or even racially charged. These trends’ effects vary on a case-by-case basis, fluctuating between harmful for today’s social networking environment and just a set of harmless words. But at the end of the day, they always represent a concrete way for us to gauge our fleeting interests.
While recent trends include “Rick Perry” and “Ron Paul,” most trends are about random topics that are not covered in any newspaper. Despite living in the most politicized city in the world — Washington, D.C. — the city’s Twitter trends reflect that Twitter's main purpose is still amusement. With trends like #OnceYouGetMarriedYouCant and "brb," it is a wonder how people gain thousands of followers by using these useless trends alone.
The Twitter trend's power varies. When the trend is about a recent newsmaker, it just continues to build and build until new news replaces it. This is true of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who has recently received the epithet of “King of Twitter.” Trends just gauge our fleeting interests, until something new and shiny can take hold of Twitterverse.
This brings up the question of Twitter censorship. Twitter as a company should actively monitor its trends to stop inappropriate trends from continuing. While it is unreasonable to ask Twitter to police profanity and other insignificant and useless trends, Twitter can, similar to how the U.S. can prohibit free speech that is likely to lead to imminent lawless action (Brandenburg v. Ohio), take measures to prevent its users from engaging in violent or offensive action.
During the first week of August, Washington D.C. was trending the hashtags: #F***YouWashington (without the asterisks) and #ReasonsToBeatYourWife. Twitter did not take action to remove the former hashtag, but eliminated the latter when it was trending. While both are offensive, only #ReasonsToBeatYourWife could be used to potentially promote violence. On Saturday there was a trending hashtag: #wordsafricansmispronounce. While this does not promote violence, the racial offense that comes from this should also be monitored in the future. This is the type of “police work” Twitter and other websites should be implementing, taking measures to discourage people from causing harm to themselves or promoting intolerance and prejudice in society.
One step in the right direction has been the option of “flagging” offensive material on websites, but next should be to ensure the content on websites cannot even provoke such commentary. Search engines like Google, Yahoo, Bing, and others should actively make sure that recipes for disaster cannot be found on their sites — i.e. “how to make a home-made bomb” or the countless other dangerous things someone could look up. Key words that have violent connotations or are generally offensive should be flagged on companies’ servers and eliminated as needed.
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