Let’s say you wanted to create a record of everything that happened in 2022, through the lens of social media. Where would you start?
Brian Feldman began and ended in the same place: the sidebar on the right-hand side of Twitter.com, which keeps a running list of trending topics in fields from sports to politics to entertainment.
The 31-year-old internet culture writer-turned-software engineer told NPR in a phone interview that he has long been fascinated by the sentences that attempt to describe the buzzy topics, as they either highlight seemingly insignificant things or try to boil incredibly complex topics down into just 280 characters. (That work was done by curators and according to an internal style guide).
“You can’t sum up the political state of America in a tweet, for example,” he says. “I both appreciated the effort and also could understand that, like, it’s such a weird effort. And speaking in that sort of removed voice about anything from the White House to users debating which type of ginger ale is the best, it’s inherently funny. It’s the sort of thing where you don’t have to write a joke, you can just sort of appreciate the oddness of it.”
Feldman had taken screenshots of the sidebar whenever he logged into Twitter, both to document those efforts for himself and send the weirder ones to like-minded friends. But he thought it might be interesting to take a look at them in aggregate.
So this year, he went a step further by creating a website to publicly share the trending topics he had logged throughout 2022 — all 457 of them.
“What’s Happening Online” organizes the descriptions both in a calendar view and a scrollable timeline that, as Feldman puts it, “you can read from start to finish if you have the patience and the stomach.”
In a note explaining his motivation and methodology, Feldman says the project serves “both as a reminder of some of the b******t that we endured this year, and as a sort of tribute to the people who powered it.”
That’s because while the trending topics are still very much a fixture of Twitter, the brief descriptions that previously accompanied them have not appeared on the site since Elon Musk laid off its curation team in early November. The project has since taken on new meaning as a memorial to what was lost.
Feldman told NPR that as much as he is poking fun at the impossible effort to describe trending topics, he thinks it’s a shame that people have less information now than they did two months ago.
“Rather than seeing what’s trending and getting at least a little snippet of why that might be spiking, people sort of have to figure it out for themselves,” he says. “And when people do their own research on the Internet, that can go sideways pretty quick.”
What has Feldman learned from a year of documenting Twitter trends?
“It’s both interesting and entertaining and a little bit horrifying to see them all laid out in front of you at once,” he says.
Feldman says he has no firm data-driven takeaways, but thought it was interesting to see certain trends reappearing over time (for example, how often conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro appeared on his list).
And he’s careful to stress that his archive is subjective by design. He opted to take screenshots manually in order to log his own experience of checking Twitter in 2022 (which also explains why there are some days with multiple entries and some days-long stretches without any).
But he says he wasn’t cherry-picking the funniest or weirdest trends to document — the only requirement was that a topic must have a description. He said his goal was to “emphasize the human elements,” like the written descriptions and the specific times at which he encountered them.
“I guess my big takeaway is, everyone encounters the internet differently, and it’s tough to make broad statements about it for everyone,” Feldman told NPR. “And I think I sort of wanted to capture that sense a little bit.”
That being said, Feldman does have his favorite internet moments, some of which he rounded up in a recent edition of his newsletter.
And that’s only a small sliver of all that’s happened online this year.
Feldman says while he’s glad he took this project on, he was never planning to continue or repeat it, even before the trending topic descriptions stopped.
He saw it mainly as a learning opportunity and an excuse to check Twitter — though he did plan to make his archive public from the outset. And if scrolling through it makes you somewhat dizzy, you’re not alone.
Noting that “fewer people use Twitter than you think,” Feldman says the limited public reaction has been mostly positive. People have told him that they liked it, and that it “drove them a little bit crazy.”
“I think everyone who … has an interest in this tool sort of knows that they enjoy it and it’s also reflective of like, ‘What am I doing with my life that I am interested in a lot of this nonsense?’ ” he says. “So I think people enjoy both the recap and also the sort of reflective nature of it, if I had to guess.”
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