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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 started and ended in the same place: the sidebar on the right side of Twitter.com, which maintains a running list of trending topics in areas ranging from sports to politics to entertainment.
The 31-year-old internet culture writer turned software engineer told NPR in a phone interview that he’s long had a fascination with phrases that attempt to describe the topics that make the buzz, because they highlight seemingly insignificant things or try to sum up incredibly complex topics in just 280 characters. (This work was done by curators and according to a 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 got to understand that it’s such a weird effort. And talking about this kind of voice away from anything from the White House to users debating what kind of ginger ale is the best, it’s inherently funny. It’s the kind of thing where you don’t have to write a joke, you can just enjoy the weirdness of it.”
Melissa Kruse Photography/Brian Feldman
Feldman had taken screenshots of the sidebar every time he logged on to Twitter, both to document these efforts for himself and to send the odd ones out to like-minded friends. But he thought it might be interesting to look at them as a whole.
So this year, he took it a step further by creating a website to publicly share the trending topics he had recorded throughout 2022 – all 457 of them.
“What’s Happening Online” organizes the descriptions in both a timeline view and a scrolling timeline that, as Feldman puts it, “you can read cover to cover 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 we’ve endured this year and as a kind of tribute to the people who propelled him.”
Indeed, while trending topics are still present on Twitter, the brief descriptions that previously accompanied them haven’t appeared on the site since Elon Musk fired his curation team in early November. The project has since taken on new meaning as a memorial to what was lost.
Feldman told NPR that while he scoffed at the impossible effort to portray hot topics, he thinks it’s a shame people have less information now than two months ago.
“Rather than seeing what’s trending and at least getting a small glimpse of why it might be increasing, people kind of have to figure it out for themselves,” he says. “And when people do their own research on the internet, it can go awry pretty quickly.”
Insights and highlights from a year of Twitter trends
What did Feldman learn from a year spent documenting Twitter trends?
“It’s both interesting and entertaining and a bit horrifying to see them all laid out in front of you at once,” he says.
Feldman says he doesn’t have firm conclusions based on data, but thought it was interesting to see certain trends reappear over time (for example, how often conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro appeared on his list).
And he is careful to point out that his archives are subjective in nature. He chose to take screenshots manually in order to record his own experience verifying Twitter in 2022 (which also explains why there are days with multiple entries and periods of multiple days with none).
But he says he wasn’t selecting the funniest or weirdest trends to document – the only requirement was that a subject had a description. He said his goal was to “emphasize the human elements,” like the written descriptions and the specific times he encountered them.
“I guess my big takeaway is that everyone encounters the internet differently, and it’s hard to make general statements about that for everyone,” Feldman told NPR. “And I think I kind of wanted to capture that feeling a bit.”
That being said, Feldman has his favorite internet momentssome of which he summarized in a recent edition of his newsletter.
- Alien Ant Farm: People remember the quality of life when Alien Ant Farm released a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal in 1999
- Bass Pro Shop: Many compare NASCAR driver Tony Stewart’s home in Columbus, Indiana to a Bass Pro Shop
- gothic clowns: An image with a sign that reads “cloth dresses” shares the fact that they first read it as “goth clowns”
- Kane: People respond to WWE politician and wrestler Glenn Jacobs, known by his ring name as Kane, and his support for the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. wade
- The spirit of McDonald’s: Some debate the endlessly fizzy and mysteriously potent properties of McDonald’s Restaurant Sprite
- My name is Earl: Jason Lee, the founder of Hollywood Unlocked who shares a name with the star of 2000s sitcom My Name is Earl, faces criticism for an Instagram post circulating unsubstantiated rumors about Queen Elizabeth II
- Ned Flanders: People are mocking Simpsons character Ned Flanders after The Try Guys say they no longer work with Ned Fulmer
- no covid: People share whether or not they had COVID-19
- PG-13: Fans react to the news that The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, has been rated PG-13
And that’s just a small part of everything that’s happened online this year.
Feldman says that while he’s glad he took on this project, he never planned on continuing or repeating it, even before the buzzy subject descriptions stopped.
He saw it primarily as a learning opportunity and an excuse to check Twitter — although he planned to make his archives public from the get-go. And if scrolling through it makes you a little dizzy, you’re not alone.
Noting that “fewer people use Twitter than you might think,” Feldman says the limited public reaction has been mostly positive. People told him they liked it and it “drove them a little bit crazy”.
“I think everybody who… is interested in this tool kind of knows they appreciate it and it also reflects, ‘What am I doing with my life that I’m interested in a lot of this nonsense? ” he says. “So I think people appreciate both the recap and also the kind of thoughtful nature of it, if I had to guess.”