When it comes to explaining the internet, tech writer Brian Feldman has a singular approach. He’s spent significant time investigating the roots of that one early viral video where a little kid gets absolutely wacked in the head with a basketball. He’s interviewed the creator of the art in the “Damn, bitch, you live like this?” Goofy meme. His latest project is www.whatshappening.online. It’s an archive of every Twitter Trend description from 2022, a time capsule of those little blurbs the platform posts alongside any given trending topic, trying to explain to people the nature of the conversation and—theoretically at least—get them to join in.
Feldman spent a year cataloging these by hand, meaning by screenshot, and you can pick through them now via a calendar or a timeline. It’s … it’s fascinating. Through the uncanny valley of Twitter staff descriptions, the project examines a very human attempt to explain the world. “Very human” in that, well, they are literally humans trying to create clear and helpful mass communication and “very human” in that they absolutely fail.
Flicking through whatshappening.online is a fun house experience. Each moment is recognizable as real, as a true piece of history, but in the pithy descriptions, all sense and logic gets erased from the moment. There’s a flat affect that is both creepy and, in some cases, surprisingly comforting. The tragedies and fears of a year become blips, passing by. Just another moment to elicit a “huh” before being, once again, forgotten.
February 11: “Radio show host Jesse Kelly gave Rep. Lauren Boebert an award for being the ‘hottest woman in Congress,’ which misspelled her name and included a gift card to Red Lobster.”
February 24: “The 1939 German invasion of Poland is discussed after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a ’special military operation’ in eastern Ukraine.”
“I am nothing if not sympathetic to the idea of trying to explain a news event or a silly viral moment to tens of millions of people at once,” Feldman says. “It’s a worthwhile effort because it makes things more legible.”
Feldman says he became entranced by the descriptions sometime around 2016, when conservative talking heads began claiming Twitter was suppressing right-wing trending topics. “The reality seemed to be, Twitter just had human editors who decided what was worth highlighting for people. It’s people exercising editorial judgment, and you can disagree with those judgments, but the effort is rooted in trying to help people,” he says. “I’d rather see companies try and fail to do that, rather than outsource it to automation.”
But what continues to fascinate Feldman about the Twitter Trends descriptions is that “the hit rate is automatically low. It’ll be either too much of an explanation or not enough of one for 90 percent of people. Familiarity doesn’t scale.” Which brings us back to the inherent strangeness of this form.
Feldman says his 2022 Twitter Trend favorite was this one, about Snickers, from April: “Snickers announces the chocolate ‘veins’ in its candy bar will remain.”
On its own, it’s a perfectly strange shard of a sentence. But like a lot of the internet, what’s seemingly dumb or pointless has surprising depth and relevance. As Feldman puts it, “The topic itself is absurd, but then what that description doesn’t include is this troll conspiracy thing that woke politicians were going to get rid of the vein. They stopped just short of including that context.” Culture wars, disinformation, the fact that some people think the veins on a Snickers bar resemble the veins of a human penis—there’s a whole lot more to the story. But the capsule reviewer seemingly made a choice to not subject users to all of that. The capsule reviewer just wanted people to feel good about everything staying the same with Snickers.
Which, in a way, sums up the whole point of Feldman’s project. It’s a reminder that the pursuit of explaining the internet—and, therefore, the world—is both an honorable one and one that is ultimately, due to our own inherent ineffability, doomed to fail. We’ll always want to understand each other. And we never fully will. There isn’t enough nuance in the world to do that.
The last capsule review on whatshappening.online is from October 31: “Rapper Saweetie’s 2020 Mystique Halloween costume is discussed after Kim Kardashian shared a video of herself dressed as the X-Men character.”
A few days later, Elon Musk issued mass layoffs. While the Twitter Trends continue to appear, there have been no Twitter Topics descriptions since. It’s just one more way in which Twitter, one of the world’s dominant discourse platforms, has changed, likely forever. “My interest was seeing how these things float to the top and how it filters through the human processing it, and how they figure out how to represent it to people,” Feldman says. “That’s just not there anymore.”
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