I think I became aware of the word trending a few years ago, whenever it began to creep outside of Twitter, as I’ve only recently started to dip my toes in the water of the Twittersphere. My first thought was that the word seemed to mean popular, but that there must be some more specific meaning to it. In time, I told myself, that meaning would become clear.
Now, I can see that it just means popular. So why use trending at all then? I don’t mean to be averse to any new words entering the English language. I accept that languages are evolving, and words come about to serve a particular purpose. But in a case like this, there isn’t really a specific niche that trending is filling.
That being said, even though saying something’s popular on Twitter would probably suffice, it doesn’t quite have the same sense that trending has. The key difference, I think, is the fact that something trending is generally temporary, whereas something can potentially be popular forever. I think the word trending was quite deliberately adopted by Twitter to create sense of ephemerality, of transitoriness. The word trend has long been associated with temporary, passing fads. The -ing part is important too. The verb is constantly used in the present continuous tense, which we use for temporary situations. You never hear someone say something trends for a long time, do you?
But why would Twitter want to create this sense? Simply, FOMO (fear of missing out: I know that one). By highlighting what people are talking about RIGHT NOW!!, it encourages people to respond right away and get their point across, before the discussion disappears.
Of course the problem with that is that once the discussion is over, the subject of the discussion doesn’t necessarily go away. Remember #Kony2012? I wonder how many people who tweeted about it are aware that Joseph Kony is still at large, though his forces have dwindled in recent years. Not that I’m questioning the good intentions of a lot of people who maybe read up on Joseph Kony and genuinely wanted to help his child soldiers and those who lived in fear of murder. But the trending culture doesn’t really lend itself to following up on complex matters.
And it doesn’t really lend itself to in-depth reporting of such complex matters in the first place. It’s quite easy to see the changes in online journalism in recent years. Of course writers have always wanted as many people as possible to read their work. But the nature of the internet has magnified that, and allows writers to respond immediately to whatever’s trending. Which means that everyone’s got to have their hot take on whatever the trendiest topic of the moment is, and they’ve got to stand out from the crowd. Which leads to superficial pieces designed to shock with clickbait headlines or extreme opinion pieces in which the topic is either the greatest or the worst thing ever, because no-one wants to read about how some issues are actually more complex than they might initially appear. Well, some people do, but they’re not going to generate enough clicks.
Now I actually do use hashtags a bit cynically when I tweet links to old posts. If I see something’s popular and reminds me of an old post, I’ll include a relevant hashtag in the tweet, in the hope that more people will read it. Because I’m needy and want as many people as possible to read what I write. But I think anyone who writes publically is the same. And sometimes something in the news will give me an idea of something to write about, but I’ll never write about something I don’t want to write about, just to be in on the trending conversation.
I suppose I’m just concerned that the focus on what’s trending leads us all to loudly argue in circles about the same few topics for a few weeks before moving on, and we never really achieve anything. And, despite how easy it is spread information online, we don’t get to hear about anything new as it gets lost in all the noise of the trending conversation. I guess there’s not much I can do about that, but these are just some observations on the state of writing at the moment. Anyway, come back tomorrow for my hot take on whatever viral video of a cute dog we’re all going to be watching this evening.