Sunday, May 6, 2012

Self-Perpetuating Trends and the Perpetual Motion

Last night, Floyd Mayweather improved to 43-0 by unanimously beating the Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto. The scores were close-ish, but Mayweather, who everyone would like to see fight Manny Pacquiao once Mayweather's domestic violence case is behind him, was the clear winner. Probably someone who knows more about boxing could tell you the implications of this fight, but from my seat, until he squares off against Pacquiao in the ring, I have trouble working up interest.

The fight was not what the general public noticed.  When I typed Floyd Mayweather into Google this morning (looking for information about the impending Pacquiao fight), this article from TMZ came up.  It seems Justin Bieber was part of Mayweather's entourage, and from the pictures it would seem Mayweather was happy to have him there.  It could be because Mayweather is no idiot, and having Bieber there instantly makes this a news story, and many people who might not have even known boxing still exists will read about Mayweather's fight.  It could be that Bieber is the hardcore boxing fan he purports to be.  There are a lot of possible reasons for Bieber to be there both cynical and sincere.

What seems to have caught a lot of people's attention, though, was that 50 Cent, who has been critical of Bieber, was also part of the entourage.  There is a lot that can be said about this intersection of American culture.  Is this the bridging of a gap between two ideologically disperate music camps, like when Dylan went electric, Eminem covered "Stan" with Elton John, or when Aerosmith and Run DMC did a duet of "Walk This Way"?  Probably not, though Bieber has had or has discussed collaborations as far reaching as Ludacris, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Usher, Busta Rhymes, Ke$ha, and Chris Brown.  Has 50 Cent buried the hatchet and decided that Bieber is okay?   Back in 2010, 50 Cent demanded, in no uncertain language, that fans of Bieber (or as he said, Justin Beaver) disengage from 50 Cent (though he tried to back peddle some, it created quite a stir among Bieber's often rabid fans).  It could be likely since 50 Cent had some unkind words to say about fellow entourage member Lil' Wayne around the same time, and no one seemed to upset in the ring that night.  Or, and maybe most likely, it could be that everyone is literally witnessing the maturation of a young Bieber as he moves from teenage heart throb to full-grown adulthood, taking interest in blood sports to rebrand himself as a more masculine celebrity.

The interesting cultural talking-points abound.  But what I found most interesting was not so much the moment itself, but how people talk about the moment, particularly on my newest interest: Twitter.

I'll admit it: I'm late to the Twitter-wagon.  Truthfully, I still don't quite "get it", which is code for how apathetic I am concerning social media outlets.  Facebook works well for me, and until I started trying to create an on-line, professional personality, I didn't think everyone wanted to be inundated with updates concerning what brand of toothpaste I was currently using (Colgate MaxFresh).  But this morning, when I thought about what sort of thing Academic Keegan would post about, I noticed that "50 Cent and Justin Bieber" was trending.  That's odd, I thought, which is the same reaction I would have if someone told me melons and handguns were on a buy one get one free offer.

Later in the afternoon, though, it was still trending.  Maybe there was a fight, I thought, and I tried imagining something that could kill 50 Cent.  This is not because I think about that often; more because so many have tried and failed before.  He was shot nine times and lived.  The man just doesn't go down.  A swarm of angry Beiber fans, I thought, taking him on like Hydra battles The Avengers...that might work.

Still later (I'm on British time, so it's evening now), the headline was still on the "Worldwide Trends" list, so I caved on clicked the link.  The list of posts that contained that exact phrase was at first alarming, but then became quite confusing.  It seemed that most of the posts read like this:

 Or like this.

(To be fair, the posts seemed equally divided between people in disbelief and people posting this picture).

This was a really interesting phenomenon.  It seemed that Twitter was self-perpetuating a trend.  The more people idly posted about how they couldn't believe Justin Bieber and 50 Cent were a trending topic, the more that topic was forced onto the consciousness of the Twitter users.

Lots of search engines use this idea of "trending."  Google+, Facebook, and the ill-fated Yahoo all seem to be interested in suggesting what the reader should be interested in.  I'll admit it: sometimes I find this to be really useful.  I found out a lot of people have died because Yahoo puts it into the top news stories when I log in to check my mail.  And the "What's Hot on Google+" has been a good way to waste time with pictures of cats or woefully misguided "facts" about the Universe.

What is interesting about Twitter is how, unlike with the other sites mention, the topic trends are generated by user input.  That is, when you go to Yahoo and search for a story, it stores all of those search terms.  Their list of story trends tends to be what people have searched for.  This is a good cross-section of what people are thinking about at any one given time.  The content, though, is not just from Yahoo users, but from anyone who has a website.  Yahoo doesn't just search itself for a phrase, but it searches a good section of the internet including news sources, blogs, Wikipedia and so on.  Google+ searches for user created content that has been shared or "+1"ed often within a certain amount of time.  Reddit probably has the most useful rating algorithm, created by Randall Monroe of xkcd fame and best described it here.  

Twitter, though, just searches it's source material all generated from with Twitter itself.  So whenever someone posted anything with the phrase "50 Cent and Justin Bieber" (that phrasing alone is a gold mine of rhetorical analysis as to who is listed first, and why they are listed this way), even if to say they couldn't believe it, that was registered as a post.  The more people post that they can't believe something, and the more real that something becomes (Peter Pan had a similar technique when trying to revitalize Tinker Bell).  No one has shed much light on why people are interested in that pairing, or what was really happening, or what it means for the landscape of popular music; most people wanted to talk about how they just couldn't believe that other people wanted to talk about 50 Cent and Justin Bieber.

This is perpetual motion: something triggers a chain reaction that eventually starts to feed that same reaction.  50 Cent and Bieber did something that caused a reaction (some people posting about it).  That reaction (the first salvo of posts) caused another reaction (the phrase growing in popularity).  That second reaction creates more reactions (posting in disbelief), and so on and so on (rising and continuing popularity fueling further posts in disbelief, etc. etc.).  The reactions no long need the initial stimulus (two people doing something) to continue creating more reactions.  The trend is fueling it's own trendiness.

If only we could harness this in some way to create energy in the Universe.  And maybe that's what can come of this: finding someway to use Justin Bieber's star power like the power from an actual star.

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