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A Day in the Life of a Trending Topic

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Twitter offers us a simple way to see a list of "trending topics" -- small snippets of text that summarize material that's being shared via tweets.

Doing this isn't all that hard, conceptually. You need to write a program that looks for statistical patterns of text (technically, recurring patterns called N-grams) and that surfaces the patterns that are most common. The difficult part for Twitter has to do with the sheer volume of data.

As of Wednesday morning, here's what was in Twitter's trending topics display:

Hot Topics for

Other real-time services out there also offer trending topics as a way to dive into the real-time web. OneRiot does a good job, and so does Collecta. They both appear to use Twitter data as an input, but also provide value-added processing on top of that data, so as to create slightly different views into the topics that are trending at any point in time. (In addition to Twitter, OneRiot also uses many other sources of data, for example, Digg.)

What if you want to see the topics that are trending against a specific topic? How do you do that?

Wowd (Note: I work for Wowd) offers a "hot topics" feature that builds for you a trending topics display over any set of search results you generate. (This feature is only available in the client version. Also, this column isn't intended as an advertorial for Wowd, I'm just using the only service of which I'm aware that's able to provide a hot topic summary against any topic that a user supplies.)

I thought that it would be interesting to use Wowd's hot topics feature to track the development in a couple of different stories over a 24-hour period. So I picked two search terms that are top of mind: "Times Square" and "Facebook privacy." I tracked what Wowd's hot topics display showed for searches against these terms, starting Tuesday morning for roughly 24 hours.

Facebook Privacy in Real Time

Hot Topics for

In the context of Facebook privacy, "settings," "simplified," and "tomorrow" were all hot topics. Chris Cox and the Federal Trade Commission were being discussed. All extremely useful information.

After running the same search on Wednesday morning, "settings" was still a hot topic for Facebook privacy, but there was no mention of "tomorrow" any more.

Hot Topics for

Wednesday was Facebook's big day, as they announced new privacy controls.

Time Square in Real Time

I also ran a search for "Times Square" Tuesday morning and noticed that there was a lot of mention of iPhone and wireless data access.

Hot Topics for

After clicking on a few of those hot topics I learned that AT&T was embracing WiFi as a way to take the load of their 3G network, and that Times Square in New York City was getting a giant WiFi hotspot. (I suspect we'll soon see some hot topics emerging related to people getting run over in Times Square while using an iPhone, sadly enough.)

Wednesday morning, the same search for "Times Square" returned a different set of associated hot topics.

Hot Topics for

There's still some background chatter about the AT&T WiFi initiative there, but it's also clear that some developments are being reported in the relatively recent car bomb attempt in Times Square. We can see that "Pakistan" and "Pakistani Taliban" and "Bombing suspect" are all real-time emerging topics in the context of Times Square.

So while I'm a big fan of Twitter-style trending topics, I'm an even bigger fan of trending topics in the context of specific things that are of interest to me, right now, such as Facebook privacy and Times Square.

If you know of other great ways to get insight into real-time trending topics, please share.

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