How To Trend On Twitter: Do Good Ideas Always Spread?

This is an essay about how to trend on twitter, but it didn’t start that way. It all began rather innocently. In June 2011, while on my lunch break, I was seeking audience feedback on the television programme I made at the time, a children’s comedy sketch-show called ‘Horrible Histories’. Series 3 was a few episodes into its 3-month run and I was keen to evaluate whether we had delivered an entertaining romp or a disappointing turd. Annoyingly, Google was failing me in my quest for insight; its searches merely returned the usual tranche of newspaper articles, rather than the personal responses of our key demographic. It was nice that journalists liked the show, but what about the kids? Were they still giggling at our arsenal of stupid beards and funny accents, or had they all moved onto cooler things?

Noticing my failure, my friend sitting opposite me suggested I try looking on Twitter, to which I gracelessly grunted: “what, the thing with Stephen Fry getting stuck in a lift and people describing their sandwiches?” She smiled encouragingly. I looked down at my own plate; it inelegantly displayed a half-chewed cheese sandwich resting atop a hill of crisps. Across the corridor there was a cramped, silvery elevator that shuttled between the three storeys of my workplace. Check and check. Clearly I possessed all the prerequisites for tweeting. Shrugging, I muttered: “I guess it can’t hurt.”

It’s now October 2014 and I just wrote my 86,310th tweet. It wasn’t my finest work (“that’s ace, thanks!”) but I’m not going to shamefully delete it. Unlike Queen Victoria, I won’t have my correspondence censored by my daughter to gloss away my character flaws. I am an unremorseful Twitter addict happy to blurt a ceaseless tirade of mundane waffle; indeed, careful analysis of my archive (yes, I’m so boring I have downloaded and analysed my own digital witterings) reveals the majority of my tweets are not solipsistic rants about my lunch, or brilliant witticisms about the Prime Minister being a plonker, but a torrent of platitudes, greetings, responses to questions, and small talk with those people who follow my profile. It’s this gang of strangers that makes Twitter feel like a joyous commune.

When I was a much younger, internet chatrooms were my portal to self-discovery. I was bookish and socially awkward – a blue-haired, nail-varnish wearing emo kid unable to decide between baggy nu-metal trousers or tight women’s jeans – but I fizzed with all the clumsily-articulated theories of any young rebel, so the opportunity to spew forth my pretentious opinions on Descartes, and to be heard by others on the far side of the globe, was thrilling. Embarrassed by my gawky teenage physique, and terrified of talking to girls, an online persona in which I could transmit only the best parts of me was deeply comforting. Before I became a man, my developmental chrysalis stage was to be an anonymous avatar on the message board for the rock ban Muse.

Now much more comfortable in my own skin, Twitter feels like a return to those halcyon days. I’m confident enough to tweet as @Greg_Jenner, but my online profile is still curated. I am very much me, but I’m a polished version who doesn’t stumble for words, forget people’s names, or tell smutty jokes (actually, that last bit’s not true… but I mainly do them late at night). But whereas my love of chatrooms came from it being a place to think out loud, the brevity of Twitter’s 140 character limit makes nuanced argument as impossibly foolish as a game of hopscotch in an active minefield. That doesn’t stop me from trying, of course. I often embark on political debates with those I trust, knowing they know me well enough to not let it descend into an angry, hurtful slanging match. But, even then, I must admit I’m inwardly wincing throughout. Twitter debate must be a bit like feeding fish to a killer whale; you might spend years as a zoo keeper safely chucking mackerel into their gobs, but one day a careless gesture will see your arm get ripped off.

So, though I absolutely enjoy the broad spectrum of opinions to be found on Twitter, and the intellectual buzz of having your opinions confounded by someone who evidently knows a lot more about the topic, that is not why I log on with such regularity. Instead, the thing I love most is Twitter’s celebration of language.  A limit of just 140 characters forces the tweeter to be razor sharp in their succinctness, but this brevity doesn’t ruin the fun: quite the opposite; it makes twitter a digital playground for utter silliness.

I’m a professional writer, so it’s a honking tautology to say I love words, but my enjoyment has forever been tinged with an anarchic gleefulness at ruining their power with the subtlest of switches. Even as a kid, I didn’t tell funny jokes; instead, I instinctively mangled phrases into non-sequiturs, malapropisms and bizarre portmanteaus. Raised on a diet of Monty Python, the Goons, Peter Cook and Eddie Izzard, I delighted in warping language into absurdity. In The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’ protagonist, Neo, suddenly achieves his messianic potential and sees the universe as a stream of binary digits. I, however, saw the world in puns.

Yet, when history overtook language as my primary fascination, and I instead began to think in the beautifully-cantilevered paragraphs of Marx, Bloch, Braudel and Schama, my comic sensibilities withered.  I still loved jokes, and even planned to write my PhD thesis on the comedic undertones of medieval romance literature, but I was no longer blurting out reflex innuendo. My playfulness had been suppressed by the need to communicate clearly and efficiently. Yet, to the abject despair of my wife, Twitter has resuscitated that compelling urge to swap syllables for humorous effect. Now, aged 32 and a bit, I literally think in sentences of 140 characters or fewer.

But it’s not just me. Twitter boasts a veritable pantheon of punsters, people whose creative imaginations seem to be limitlessly inventive. In contrast to these word wizards, I often need a jump start. Occasionally I’ll conjure up standalone jokes (“I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, but the Netherlands is flat”) but, for the most part, I’m more productive when I have a hashtag game to play. These are puns on a single theme, accompanied by the relevant hashtag so others can join in. Over the past three years, I’ve created many such games – a memorable one was #SovietPop which resulted in such gems as “Lady Gagarin”, “Lenin and McCartney”, and “Perestroika Como” – and I’ve joined in with countless others curated by like-minded tweeters.

Their addictive zing is an almost biological instinct, something the linguist David Crystal calls “ping-pong punning” in which we can’t help but trade jokes with others in a game of jolly one-upmanship.  Gradually, I began to notice the particular popularity of games with broader thematic appeal. For example, #HighbrowLowbrow – begun with a joke about “Pacific Rimbaud” – garnered some ingenious replies from professors and PhD students alike, but there was a dearth of One Direction fans. Clearly, a game predicated on a joke about massive robots and a 19th century French surrealist poet wasn’t appealing to them. At this, I began to wonder if there was something more universal – a game that could literally appeal to anyone. This moment of curiosity coincided with my job at the time: I was writing a chapter about the history of communication for my first book. Suddenly, it seemed as if an experiment was required.

I was going to discover how to trend on twitter.

On 2nd January 2013, I was feeling impish. I had some spare time on my hands, and had been mulling over the ideal hashtag game to draw in as many tweeters as possible. I knew it had to have international appeal, so the cultural references needed be easy to grasp, and I wanted something that was applicable to absolutely anyone, to maximise my potential audience. A few days beforehand, I had joked to my friend Sophie that all dating websites should have a maximum limit of just two-words in the profile. We had chuckled at the inevitable repercussions of singles being forced to hunt for suitors with barely a sentence to advertise themselves: “Large breasts! Well Endowed! Platinum Card!” But soon we realised this restrictive rule would then cause an evolutionary adaptation; more creative people would deploy humour to flourish in an ocean of banality: “Human male!” “Hello, mum!” “Insert Platitude!”

Suddenly, my mental cogs whirred into action. Describing yourself in two words is something that anyone can do, and it allows for various permutations of response: humorous, self-deprecating, self-aggrandising, or even just a friendly overview of your interests. It seemed, at last, that I had struck oil in the hunt for the perfect hashtag idea. Excited, I quickly wrote a tweet to my 5,208 Twitter followers, inviting them to join a game. All they had to do was describe themselves in two words and attach the hashtag #TwoWordCV to the tweet.  I opted for “Garrulous Nerd”, for reasons which are probably becoming quite clear, and despatched my little experiment out into the digital ether. After five minutes I’d had just five responses, hardly the most illustrious of starts, but within an hour the game was trending in the UK and, after two hours, my hashtag had been exposed to 4 million people in America, Canada and Britain. I had learned how to trend on Twitter.

How had this happened? Firstly, let’s deal with the fact that most people completely ignored me – I’m not Justin Bieber, Cristiano Ronaldo or a politician photographing his genitals – but the core idea was good enough to snare a few passing tweeters, and 9,000 people tweeted back with a response. This alone was enough to nearly melt my smart phone into a molten soup of plastic. Was this proof of my Ramessesian levels of awesomeness? Disappointingly, no. It’s merely evidence that an idea need not be remotely useful to become widespread, and – even if it’s a good one – what probably matters more is the scale of the network supporting it.

Of my then 5,208 personal followers, the vast majority were probably doing something other than reading Twitter when I posted my tweet. Consequently, because of the way an individual’s Twitter timeline fills up with hundreds, or even thousands, of tweets in an hour (I follow more than 5,000 people, meaning I can scroll through tens of thousands of tweets in a single day!) it’s likely most would never even have seen #2WordCV, had I only posted it once.  I suppose I could have relentlessly re-posted it every 10 minutes for 24 hours, but that would have been an act of self-sabotage as followers would then have ditched me for being an insufferable bore. Instead, I chose to trust in the slow but steady momentum that follows a single, lonesome tweet.

So, how did my silly little game, initially broadcast to perhaps only 100 people, become a trend?

Quite simply, Twitter tallies the aggregated use of identifying hashtags, and measures the velocity of public interest in a new idea. If a hashtag passes a certain threshold in a set time window, and continues to gain momentum – growing almost exponentially – then it qualifies onto a leader-board of trends. But it’s not a measurement of popularity: something can be globally popular, and be steadily tweeted about for weeks, but that won’t make it trend. The hashtag needs to have demonstrable acceleration in its uptake; Twitter is hardwired to seek out novelty, to break the latest idea, and so trends are rising stars, not established memes.

It might require only a few hundred quick-fire uses to achieve this, and that is all it takes to propel a hashtag onto the Top 10 Chart which is visible to every Twitter user in the UK. So, when my followers replied with their own #2WordCV, I re-tweeted them into my own timeline so that my other followers could see these private responses. Rather than tediously repeating my own “Garrulous Nerd” line, over and over, I was tempting others to join in by posting imaginative and funny contributions from others just like them. The ping-pong punning was underway.

Pretty soon, more of my followers had been lured in until “#2WordCV” magically appeared in the Trending column on the left of the main page. I was a twitter victor, showered in digital glory! Friends started texting and emailing to congratulate me! But then disaster struck. In my frenzied re-tweeting, I had reached my maximum hourly-tweeting limit! Little did I know, Twitter rations its users with draconian restrictions on just how much they can blurt out in a single hour. I was to be punished for my verbosity; locked up in Twitter jail, noisily banging my cup against the bars, but to no avail. To everyone else, I had gone utterly silent.

Unable to keep fanning the flames of creativity, I lost the momentum and #2WordCV vanished from the Trending charts. I had been muted, my idea slipping into obscurity like a cute child actor whose voice had broken into an unpleasant squawk.  What I needed were influential Tweeters willing to spread my message for me. Just as a new product struggles to shout its name over the clamour of competition, and seeks to boost its brand with star power, I needed celebrity endorsement.

Due to my history of incessant tweeting, and the fact I like to share other people’s good ideas, I had accidentally cultivated a few Twitter relationships with influential people, and I decided to beg for help from two well-known British celebrities: the professionally funny Al Murray and Caitlin Moran. Though unable to tweet them publicly, Twitter did still allow me to Direct Message them with a personal plea from my electronic penitentiary – it was my equivalent of people demanding to phone their lawyer on the prison payphone – and, to my enormous relief, both kindly agreed to invite their combined 600,000 followers to contribute to #2WordCV.

Again, let’s be clear – most of these 600,000 people were not on Twitter at the time, but let’s say there was an audience of roughly 10,000 who saw these invitations. It was this responsive gaggle who decided to join in the game and re-tweet it to their own followers. Within the space of an hour my silly little experiment had reached people all over the English-speaking world, and had become firmly lodged in the global trending chart.

However, what happened next was both disappointing and fascinating. Despite my having originated the idea, on the global scale I was not to be the star creator. My hashtag was an orphan! Caitlin and Al had both generously attributed #2WordCV to me, but the moment it splash-landed into the global trending chart (and was displayed on 4 million screens) the game was instantly anonymised. As thrilling as it was to see the hashtag lurch from the table like a reanimated corpse, I had lost control of my concept. I had learned how to trend on Twitter, but no-one encountering my trend knew it was me who had started it. I was to be Dr Frankenstein, horrified as my monster took on a life of its own.

How had this happened? Well, I was no longer doing the asking or curating the responses, so many people were clueless as to my involvement. After all, the hashtag was #2WordCV, it wasn’t #2WordCVBroughtToYouByGregJenner. In some cases strangers who had no idea I existed appropriated the hashtag for other ends; instead of describing their personality in comic style, they took it literally and compressed their job skills into two words, with “HIRE ME!” or “HARD WORKER!” showing up a lot.

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All I could do was gawp in curious wonder. Is this how communication has always worked? It made me ponder the great revolutions in history, and how they got their message out. Obviously, I’m just a bloke with too much time on his hands – and my message was merely a silly game intended to morph into a viral meme – but I was encountering the same technical problems that had faced the spread of radical movements. How do you broadcast your idea if you are not in a position of power? And how do you keep control of your message if it extends beyond your reach?

In medieval Europe, ideas were communicated solely by the Church and the ruling government. There was no mass literacy and news from beyond your own walls only trickled in through the gates on market day, or was transmitted from the pulpit. The radical shift that altered this status quo was the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s; by democratising knowledge, and drastically cutting the cost of book production, his printing revolution allowed progressive, heretical and subversive ideas to spread. But, though such ideas reached further afield, they still had to resist the inevitable backlash from the powers being challenged.

In 1517, Martin Luther published his famous ‘95 Theses’ of Protestant protest against the alleged institutional corruption of the Catholic Church. He had originally pinned them to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg – it was a scholarly Latin treatise, unreadable to most people, and there was just the one copy. This was clearly not going to change the world. And yet, within a few weeks, someone copied it, shared it with friends, translated it into German, and then printed it into cheap pamphlets. With Gutenberg’s printing culture having established itself over the past 50 years, the literacy rate in Germany was considerably higher than elsewhere in Europe. All it had taken to begin a world-changing revolution was for one man to pin one document, to one church door, in one town. If Russell Brand had been a true revolutionary, he would have left a single copy of his book on a District Line tune train and trusted in the crowd…

But the political momentum Martin Luther unexpectedly gathered didn’t prevent a fight-back from the muscular Catholic Church. Indeed, the monk likely knew he risked being arrested and executed when he travelled to speak before his enemy, Emperor Charles V, at the famous Diet of Worms. Charles had guaranteed Luther’s safety, but similar promises had been broken in the past. Yet he kept his word, and it’s likely that this was due to the influence exerted by Luther’s dedicated protectors – the various German princes who resisted the central authority of Catholic power, and who saw Luther as a handy vehicle for their own independence.

In sharp contrast to the brilliant, belligerent German monk, I wasn’t at risk for my radicalism: Twitter just temporarily silenced me for being annoyingly chatty. But it’s interesting that when I stopped artificially pumping its heart, #2WordCV flat-lined. The idea just wasn’t strong enough to trend on its own, and it needed champions willing to carry it further than I could.

Twitter is a mirror to modern life, there are millions of people with opinions, life stories, and jokes to tell, but some of the most influential are the celebrities and influential tastemakers. Al Murray (an Oxford-educated character comedian) and Caitlin Moran (a journalist, culture critic, author and humourist) are followed by large, diverse audiences. Their signal boost for my hashtag game meant the concept extended out in many directions, reaching a whole new raft of people unknown to me. This new audience was the chunky log lobbed onto the fire at the crucial moment, just as the initial kindling was dwindling, and it fuelled the crucial momentum that kept the game running long enough to outpace its rivals and smash its way onto the trending leaderboard. Its dominance wouldn’t have endured, of course – nothing does on Twitter – but all I needed was for the game to go viral. Thanks to Caitlin and Al’s last ditch cavalry charge, it had.

What’s more, the Luther analogy might just sneak back in a different context. With their influence and cultural cachet, Caitlin and Al may have potentially become my own princely protectors if someone else had stolen the credit for my game, or if the hashtag had somehow attracted media controversy. Twitter is a bubbling cauldron of mass outrage; you’re never too far from upsetting someone, and who could forget the famous Twitter Joke Trial of 2012 in which Paul Chambers was nearly criminalised for joking about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire? Remarkably, the case went all the way to court. The only thing that saved Chambers from a jail sentence was the justified stink kicked up by his Twitter champions – Stephen Fry, the comedy writer Graham Linehan, and the journalist Nick Cohen – that brought the absurdity of the case to public view, leading to its quashing. Having influential supporters in your network is as much a defence mechanism as it is a recipe for success.

Ultimately, though – being a typical historian with more questions than answers – what intrigued me most about the hashtag experiment was that my game, which is unquestionably my most successful of all, had been shuffling towards the hangman’s noose until the dramatic Murray-Moran rescue mission whisked it away from the gallows and rode off into the sunset. The difference between success and failure was seemingly unaffected by quality. Well, maybe that’s a stretch too far, actually. #2WordCV was a better idea than many others I’ve had, so clearly quality played some role, but this particular good idea was ill-equipped to thrive on its own.

It makes one wonder: had Luther been executed in 1521, would we still know what a Protestant is? If he had gone to the gallows like so many heretics before him, would the fuss have died down? Was his survival necessary to the success of the Protestant idea? Would his execution have fanned the flames of outrage equally as well, amplifying his cause with the rocket fuel of martyrdom? More generally, can even truly great ideas stall through public indifference, or be snuffed out by cynical enemies, while mediocre (or even dangerous) ones are lifted by a large enough crowd and pushed up onto the stage? Or will a powerful idea always find its outlet in the end?

These are very difficult questions to address, though there has been some recent thought applied to asking why some good ideas spread so slowly. Take, for example, the adoption of surgical antiseptics in the late 19th century. Medicine was a field where hundreds of lives were being lost every day due to sepsis, and yet doctors were worryingly tardy in adopting sterilisation of implements, despite overwhelming evidence advanced by the pioneering Germ Theorists of Lister, Koch, Semmelweiss, Pasteur and Snow. Even today, delayed uptake of new medical discoveries remains alarmingly problematic, as discussed in this The New Yorker article by Atul Gawande, who also gave the BBC Reith Lectures for 2014

Why, then, did something useless – namely #2WordCV – thrive with celebrity endorsement, if the much more important Germ Theory stumbled despite similar expert support?  Gawande tries to address the knotty medical issue, arguing that there were practical obstacles that slowed the rate of surgical progress – antibacterial hand-washing burned the doctor’s skin, and was laboriously time-consuming, plus the adoption of anaesthetics meant surgeons could no longer gauge the progress of an operation by the intensity of a patient’s agonised screams. Alarmingly, some doctors preferred the yelps of pain, figuring that this meant the patient was still breathing.  But, if lifesaving advancements were delayed by human frailties, it was the involvement of a celebrity patient — Queen Victoria herself — that heralded the arrival of another medical game-changer. The Queen endured nine childbirths during her life, and was deeply resentful of the pain and discomfort. Thankfully, one of her medical advisers, the rising star Dr John Snow, had been experimenting with chloroform as an anaesthetic. She elected to try it. This was a bold move, and one that alarmed her other doctors, but Snow’s success — and the Queen’s relief — had an enormous impact on the public perception of pain relief. Soon after, Victoria’s courtiers and aristocratic admirers started asking for the same treatment. And within a short space of time, anaesthesia established itself as standard medical practise.

In short, if you are trying to effect change in people’s behaviour, or learn how to trend on Twitter, we might say that celebrity endorsement is a vital factor. Part of the explanation for #2WordCV’s traction might be to do with the social esteem of Twitter communities. Memes might take off because they’re good, and we all might claim to know a good thing when we see it, but also because they are endorsed by trustworthy sources. Caitlin and Al are well-respected public figures, so a recommendation from them carried some weight. What’s more, once a few people responded, we might have seen the generation of “conformity pressure” where tweeters felt an almost-primal urge to fit in with their peers. The visibility of Twitter, where we spend so much of our time eavesdropping on others, easily lures us back into the instinctual social bonding rituals of our ape ancestors, where alphas lead and betas imitate.

So, perhaps reputation is key? Certainly, there have been many occasions when I’ve seen a fantastically funny joke on Twitter, and it’s been utterly ignored because the person isn’t famous (or it’s the wrong time of day – there are peak hours for comedy tweets). My #2WordCV had the legs to run for a short while because I had a modest reputation amongst my 5,000 followers, but there are doubtless many funnier, better, cleverer tweets that are strangled at birth by the weary shrug of public non-interest. On the other hand, Justin Bieber can tweet “Happy Sunday” and get 81,000 retweets. In short, learning how to trend on Twitter was really about learning how to network with those more influential than me.

Sadly, then, Twitter isn’t a pure platform of democratic meritocracy. But I’m still a fan. The staggering impact of such digital connectivity is that it has demolished the traditional walls between people. Twitter is arguably the most democratic structure for multi-vocality ever built, and at no other time in history could you write with such freedom to any person in the world. Before you needed to know their name and address, now the search bar means just a name will suffice. Indeed, you can even just search a subject or keyword and find someone on the other side of the planet with whom you might share a passion. Yes, most tweets to celebrities go unanswered; and the potential for mischievous trolling (not necessarily a bad thing…) or violent abuse (definitely a bad thing!) doesn’t always seem like the best by-product of such liberty, but no system is without flaws. The trick will be to find better, quicker ways of defending the vulnerable while upholding the openness.  It might be a much harder task that at first it appears.

For all the worrying headlines about abuses, Twitter can be a force for good. It undoubtedly boasts a vast array of connectors, from news-aggregators to celebrities, and it is these socially-connected hub-accounts which can launch something into the public consciousness with the click of a button. Indeed, where once governments set news agendas and journalists told people what to talk about, the digital community has reversed that principle and now we find blogs, websites, YouTube clips and Twitter hashtags – curated and promoted by influential tweeters – being reported by mainstream news outlets and sometimes garnering enough momentum to cajole governments into defensive manoeuvres and grovelling apologies.

But, despite my left-leaning sense of injustice about global politics, I didn’t join Twitter to change the world. Instead, I’ll be happy just as long as it is still populated by like-minded buffoons with childish imaginations who would rather while away their hours scribbling jokes, photoshopping posters into comic absurdity, and playing set after set of punnery ping pong. Twitter is my playground, and I refuse to grow up.