My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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“Pep Rally” – a truly exogenous trending topic on Twitter

Logging onto Twitter to check out a few things quickly before running off to a homecoming football game, I couldn’t help but notice something important: “Pep Rally” was trending as a US trending topic. I immediately clicked on through and found countless teens commenting on their school pep rallies. These teens were posting about pep rallies that were happening at different schools across the east coast. The fact that teens are on Twitter still comes as a surprise to some but what surprised me about this trending topic is that it’s the first truly exogenous trending topic I’ve seen teenagers produce.

There are two types of trending topics on Twitter: endogenous and exogenous. Endogenous TTs happen when a topic has a viral spread. Once it becomes a TT, everyone jumps onto it to spread it even further. So when we see a hashtag like #intenyears we know it didn’t happen naturally. It spread by a group of people until it became a TT and then off it went. Most highly visible teen participation centers on endogenous TTs. Sure, there are lots of tweens who like Justin Bieber but he trends on Twitter because people actively work to make that topic (or a related hashtag) trend. Exogenous TTs happen when everyone is talking about the same thing simultaneously, not really responding to each other or to the trending topic per say but responding to a cultural moment. This often happens when there are major new events or TV shows that are broadcasting something of great interest. For example, when Michael Jackson died, Twitter users were talking about MJ not because the topic was hott on Twitter but because it was simply of great public interest. Same with teens responding to events happening at the Teen Choice Awards.

So then why am I so enamored with “pep rally” as a trending topic? It’s Friday in the middle of October. A lot of high schools will have homecoming games tonight. Whenever there’s a homecoming game in the States (and often for other games too), there are pep rallies at the end of the school day. Schools typically let out around 2.30PM. So around 3PM, I login to Twitter and voila, Pep Rally is a trending topic. Click on through and there are thousands of teens from all over the east coast (because time zones haven’t shifted yet) talking about having just gotten out of the pep rally. Some were talking about it being lame; others were talking about it being awesome. But they weren’t talking about the same pep rally. They were talking about their individual schools’ pep rallies. Collectively, many teenagers are experiencing pep rallies right now, but it’s not the same event that they’re experiencing. They’re talking about pep rallies, but what they’re referring to isn’t a shared event. Collectively, their discussions are trending. It’s a fascinating exogenous trending topic that isn’t even about the same event but rather about an activity that teens across EST (and now CST) are experiencing simultaneously but not coherently. Thus, the TT is more about marking a pattern of day (like “good night”) than a particular event. And, in this case, an event that is wholly teen-centric. And now, as I finish this post, I can see the pep rallies finish in CST and start in MST. Amazing. And delightful.

OK… enough talking about pep rallies. It’s time to go get ready for the homecoming games of the night. Hopefully I’ll wear the right colors this time. (I’m really not good at color coordinating for football games.)

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8 comments to “Pep Rally” – a truly exogenous trending topic on Twitter

  • Interesting observation about the teen-sourced topic. What’s striking to me about it in addition is that it’s an exogenous topic that was produced by many simultaneous events of a similar class but with no centralized coordination. I suppose you could look at U.S. high school culture as a culturally-based coordinating principle, but how often do we have these explosions of similar events?

    The other examples that come to my mind, and I don’t study this stuff so am totally speculating, are barbecues on July 4 or “spring cleaning” around Memorial Day. But others like “tailgates” might be seen as coordinated by NCAA or NFL or whatever. Pep rallies just seem incredibly decentralized for the production of this kind of synchronous tweeting.

    Is this interesting, or am I just not reading enough of everyone’s work on Twitter?

  • I don’t use twitter nearly as much as I consume it, so maybe someone knows this… did they have to use the term with a hash tag to get it to trend or does the twitter search algorithm create topics from non tagged text as well? Your screen shot suggests that they didn’t create a hash tag, but maybe you just did a search for “pep rally” to get that shot. I always thought that’s why things like this were rare. Without a marketing mechanism organizing a sizable body of people to put a # in front of certain things is no small feat.

  • This is a great, concrete observation of practices on Twitter.

    I think it is worth emphasizing that there’s no bright line between the endogenous and exogenous topics, where the latter are driven by Twitter-based “contagion” and peer influence. These effects are always in play, and I would expect that past behaviors by others (whether posts about the same or past pep rallies, posts about related topics, etc.) influenced some (if not many) of these teen Twitter-users to post about pep rallies.

    Always worth-while to consider that in social phenomena, all of the effects are usually in play.

  • @daniel

    In answer to your question, I think that’s what Danah is saying here. You don’t need a phrase to be hashtagged for it to trend. Hashtagging is a way for users to encourage a trend’s inception, and get people into the conversation. What’s remarkable about this example is that it appears that it’s not the users attempting to instigate the trend intentionally; a lot of people just happen to be talking about pep rallies at this moment in time in their own local area. It’s accidental.

  • Sara Marie Watson

    Noticed more exogenous examples trending together today at 4:24 PM: “PSAT,” “Fall Break,” and “Midterm.” Granted some of that has college overlap, but definitely skews younger. At the same time, we have “Chilean miner,” “Mineiros Chilenos,” and a few endogenous hashes like “#myhomelesssignwouldsay,” and “#thatwouldbeawesome.”

  • glp

    Looks like it might be happening again….this time with the PSAT that is schedule today and tomorrow. Awesome!

  • I am just amazed that today’s teenagers even bother with pep rallys anymore. Having grown up in NYC certainly has something to do with it, but my experience can’t be all that unique of teenagers feeling that taking anything seriously that was organized by an anuthority figure (like their school) is the epitome of lameness. It just seems to me that a big part of the whole experience of being a teenager in America means having an attitude of acute apathy toward everything in general, and even more so of an event if a perceived authority had anything to do with organizing it.

  • Cindy

    Definitely happened again with PSAT on Oct. 13. And PSAT is not only just high school students, but only two grades – 10th and 11th. Who knew so many teenagers are using Twitter?

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