Of the many features Twitter employs, the Trending Topics section seems to be one of its more mystifying elements. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many Twitter users don’t even use Trending Topics, citing several understandable rationales, including being downright oblivious to what Trending Topics actually are and how to use them.

Buried within the Twitter help and support pages, I dug up this official definition:

“Twitter’s Trending Topics algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help people discover the “most breaking” news stories from across the world. We think that trending topics [which capture the hottest emerging trends and topics of discussion on Twitter] are the most interesting.”

In other words, Trending Topics are recently popular key words and phrases being consistently mentioned in tweets.

What sort of topics end up trending?

Anything, really. From brainless conversation starters like “#YoMama” or “Justin Bieber”, to news-relevant items like “#OpBart” or “Hurricane Katrina”, Trending Topics encompass a rather broad angle on subject matter.

To participate, you can either simply observe topics (clicking on any of them in your Twitter sidebar or from a mobile app will pull up search results for those keywords), or jump into the conversation by using the same keywords in your tweet. Due to the volume at which Trending Topics usually flood in, however, Twitter search results won’t always show your content in search results. Don’t be too worried, though — your followers will still be able to see your tweet.

Do Twitter users actually find Trending Topics useful or interesting?

We surveyed our readers across several social platforms and discovered that the majority find this section pointless in terms of actual “utility”. For example, oftentimes the Trending Topics will contain obscure buzzwords or silly conversation starters which our more business-oriented Twitter users hardly get any use out of.

When asked to elaborate on why they aren’t more active with the Trending Topics feature, Actuarial Analyst Martin van Beek responded via Google+, “Trending now (US): “sexinthekitchen” “the parkers”? “heyarnold” “ificouldgetawaywithit”. That says enough for me.” Indeed it does, Martin.

@Lexx_Sylveste adds via Twitter, “Trending Topics is like a list of what the “cool kids” in high school are talking about. Pass. I search topics I’m into already.”

SF Weekly Web Awards 2011 Finalist and creator of BART Don’t Lie, Ed Casey, added this humorous response (also via Google+):

“Almost never. I find that by the time something hits the trending topics there are three types of toots that make up the majority:
1. “Why is #trendingtopic trending?”
2. “Complaining that #trendingtopic is trending!” + “OMG stop complaining about #trendingtopic you’re just making it trend more!”
3. “#trendingtopic #othertrendingtopic #alltrendingtopics CHECK OUT MY SH*TTY WEBSITE/MUSIC VIDEO/SPAMSPAMPORNSPAMPSPAM!”

Waste of time.”

Fortunately for users like Casey who find Trending Topic spam a waste of time, Twitter supposedly has measures in place to filter out the tweets that fail to add value to the conversation. Twitter users misusing trending topics to potentially gain traffic to their accounts might even face being suspended from the service!

Below, see how Twitter decides which tweets are displayed in results for Trending Topics.

Some ways to get banned or filtered out when abusing Trending Topics:

  1. Rickrolling with a trending topic. In other words, “Tweeting about a trending topic and posting a misleading link to something unrelated.”
  2. Listing the trending topics in combination with a request to be followed.
  3. Tweeting about each trending topic in turn in order to drive traffic to your profile, especially when mixed with advertising.
  4. Repeatedly Tweeting the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending/trending higher.
  5. Adding one or more topic/hashtag to an unrelated Tweet in an attempt to gain attention in search.

Sounds a lot like the do’s and don’ts of Twitter Hashtags article I recently wrote, doesn’t it? While some of our readers argued that using hashtags and trending topics in such a way is up to individual preference, it turns out that Twitter disagrees. Hashtags and trending topics are meant to be helpful and contribute to the conversation, not be abused in such a way that it dilutes the message.

In fact, Twitter encourages its users to be relevant and genuine when using trending topics and hashtags. I can only assume this is to promote the quality of content on the platform. There are exceptions, of course, but generally speaking, this appears to be the method Twitter originally hoped its users would take to the feature. For more information on how to better use hashtags, Twitter recommends this official Twitter Fan Wiki.

How do I use Trending Topics?

I’d have to agree with the majority of responses that I typically find Trending Topics to be somewhat useless. I will say, however, that they are definitely entertaining and helpful conversationally. By this, I mostly mean that Trending Topics serve as interesting ice breakers for real life conversations outside of the platform.

Examples: “So I heard Hey Arnold is trending on Twitter. I didn’t realize so many people were into that cartoon!” Or, “Did you see Eddie Murphy trending on Twitter? I hear he’s hosting the Oscars!”

While many Twitter users may not find Trending Topics to be of practical value, there are still those who, like me, might occasionally click through them just for a quick laugh or to stay current in popular conversations. In many ways, the Trending Topics feature serves as a sort of “discovery” tool: At first glance, a currently popular topic may not be absolutely relevant to your interests, but clicking it might unveil a whole host of reasons to follow along.

We want to know: In what ways are you using Trending Topics,  and after reading this article, will you be keeping a closer eye on them? Or are Trending Topics ultimately useless?