Twitter is such a black hole—of words, of images, of coherent thought—that it’s hard to remember sometimes that there are actual human beings employed to manage its chaos so that, on the surface at least, it appears to be a sensibly functioning social media application. The most tangible example of this is the “What’s Happening” sidebar, where trending topics are corralled with explanatory paragraphs that describe in short sentences why a given news item is all over the place.
Over at Slate, Luke Winkie (a past contributor to The A.V. Club) looked into the people behind “What’s Happening,” finding unsung cultural heroes who are tasked with continually boiling the wide-ranging absurdity of the internet down into easily understandable summaries. Having recognized that AI would be unsuited for the task—“You need the nuance and the context, and it needs to be coming from a person,” Twitter’s Senior Director Of Curation says—the social network began hiring a team to decode not only what Twitter users are currently talking about, but why.
Winkie describes “the memes and hashtags that occupy the trending tab” as the product of “a tight cycle of references, insider knowledge, and necrotic, extremely online brain poisoning.” In order to navigate this maelstrom, writers like a woman who gives her name as just “Victoria” have to constantly investigate the specific fan communities and online subcultures that have led to a given moment’s trending topic.
The article gives the example of Victoria’s crash course in Minecraft. To learn not just about the video game itself, but also the world of influential Twitch streamers who play it, she had to “[create] a comprehensive Minecraft curriculum for herself” that involved watching tons of streams and reading “through zillions of tweets” and “amateur wikis that serve as the knowledge base for countless different fandoms.” That done, Victoria has to actually write the summaries, which she says is “a skill you definitely have to hone” with practice.
Victoria talks about how she approaches this task, offering information without letting personal opinion creep in. “It’s not our job to share our opinion,” she says. “We’ve got to stay as impartial as humanly possible. How I’m feeling about Lola Bunny’s new design needs to stay out of it.” Twitter employees like Victoria are described in the piece as “the interconnective tissue between every microscopic faction of the Terminally Logged On,” and that seems like as good a way to summarize their job as any.
Read the entire article for more details—and to never again look at the “What’s Happening” tab without feeling a pang of sympathy for the psychic ordeal required to give you its summaries.
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