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Algorithmic Glass Bead Games – Why predicting Twitter trends will not change the world | Beautiful Data

The last hours, I’ve seen a lot of tweets mentioning this great new algorithm by MIT professor Devavrat Shah. The UK Wired, The Verge, Gigaom, The Atlantic Wire and Forbes all posted stories on this fantastic discovery. And this has only been the weekend. Starting next week, there will be a lot more articles celebrating this breakthrough in machine learning.

At first, I was very enthusiastic as well and tweeted the MIT press release. A new algorithm – great stuff! But then slowly, I began to think about this whole thing. This new algorithm claims to predict trending topics on Twitter. But this is a lot different from an algorithm predicting e.g. the outcome of presidential elections or other external events. Trending topics are nothing more than the result of an algorithm themselves:

Trends are determined by an algorithm and are tailored for you based on who you follow and your location. This algorithm identifies topics that are immediately popular, rather than topics that have been popular for a while or on a daily basis, to help you discover the hottest emerging topics of discussion on Twitter that matter most to you.

So, what Shah et al developed is an algorithm that is predicting the outcome of an algorithm. A lot of the coverage suggests that this new algorithm could be very useful for Twitter – because then they would not have to wait for the results of their own algorithm that is defining trends but could use the much brand new algorithm that gives the results 1.5 hours in advance:

The algorithm could be of great interest to Twitter, which could charge a premium for ads linked to popular topics.

What’s next? A Stanford professor that develops an algorithm that can predict the outcome of the Shah algorithm some 1.5 hours in advance? Or what about Google? Maybe someone will invent an algorithm predicting the PageRank for web pages? Oh, wait, something like this has already been invented. Maybe you’ll better know this under its acronym “SEO” or “Search Engine Optimization”.

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