The people who write Twitter's trending descriptions say they love 'description man' memes

·6 min read
composite of three images: dream, the mincraft player's avatar (a green blocky body with a smiley face drawn on it); a muscle-looking giant monster from Attack on Titan, and betty white
Minecraft YouTubers like Dream, anime series like "Attack on Titan," and celebrities like Betty White have sparked Twitter trends that have merited descriptions in the past. YouTube/Dream SMP Hangout; WIT Studio; Amanda Edwards/WireImage/Getty
  • Twitter began assigning descriptions to some trending terms in September 2020.

  • These descriptions are written by humans, who dive into conversations and synthesize them.

  • The descriptions - and the people behind them - have been distilled into a "Descriptions Man" meme.

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On March 14, "aaron burr" was trending on Twitter. Why were a flurry of users on the platform engaging in discussion about the third vice-president of the United States almost 200 years after his death? It wasn't because of "Hamilton," the musical in which Burr is the primary antagonist. It wasn't even for any particular historical anniversary either. The real answer was more complicated.

The discussion was summed up in a Twitter-penned description attached to the trending topic: "The Wikipedia page for the third vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, has been altered to include a reference to a piece of fan art depicting Thomas Jefferson wearing a chest binder depicting the face of Hatsune Miku."

Providing context to Twitter trends - even ones as complex as this, which invokes one of the most Tumblr-famous pieces of fan art of all time - is the primary responsibility of Twitter's trends curation team, which is staffed by teams in New York, London, and Sydney.

Since Twitter's public launch 15 years ago in July, trends have become a crucial part of the social media platform's ecosystem. Twitter first introduced trends in 2008, according to a 2010 blog post from the company. Today trends have become central to conversation on the platform, and frequently generate conversations themselves.

For those in charge of providing context for whatever topic is taking over Twitter on a given day, writing descriptions is a process of not only understanding trends, but communicating their meaning to a general audience. In the process, the writers have been mythologized under monikers like "Description Man," imagined as an omnipresent entity with eyes on every trending discussion on Twitter.

The reality isn't quite so simple.

Twitter descriptions aim to provide context for a constant stream of information

According to Joanna Geary, the senior director of curation at Twitter, trend descriptions arose from Twitter's desire to provide more context to conversations.

"Trends is one of the areas that is obviously incredibly high profile on Twitter, but can also end up with 'WTF' moments," she told Insider. "People see it when they click into [the 'explore' tab], and it's not always easy to tell from what the keyword is that's trending what's happening, and sometimes people can get the completely wrong idea about why something is trending. You know, everyone gets terribly worried every time they see Betty White's name."

Trends have long been a contentious feature of Twitter, particularly when it comes to the potential spreading of misinformation on the platform. In late 2019, Twitter began to experiment with providing context to trends, developing what Geary said were "some algorithmic tools" in the process. However, the need for human nuance prevailed, and Twitter decided that it wanted to commit to trends by bringing on people with the ability and knowledge to contextualize the platform's constant stream of trending terms.

The New York Times reported that some current and former employees at Twitter had advocated for the removal of the trending list altogether to curb misinformation, particularly in the lead-up to the 2020 United States presidential election. In September 2020, Twitter moved to add further context to tweets through descriptions and "representative tweets" meant to help sum up the discussion.

Anna, a former journalist who asked to be referred to only by her first name to protect her identity, is a trends health curator and one of the people whose job it is to write trend descriptions. When a new trend that necessitates further context arises, she'll dig around to get to the bottom of the conversation, and from there, synthesize it into something bite-sized that can fit in Twitter's trend section. Finally, she'll share her work with a group of fellow writers who review it and weigh in.

Fandoms, and conversations they drive on Twitter, are a frequent focus of trend descriptions

Fandom - collectively referring to groups of fans of TV shows, influencers, musicians, sports, or anything else - is one of the biggest forces on Twitter. In 2020, Twitter says there were 6.7 billion K-pop tweets on the platform and 2021 has seen the ascendance Minecraft fandom a very visible way: the trending tab on Twitter. When a Minecraft YouTuber does something noteworthy on a livestream, for instance, fans' immediate discussion may lead to the YouTuber's name or something related to their actions trending on Twitter.

Understanding these fandoms and the language to navigate them in a very public way isn't easy. Victoria, another description writer for Twitter, told Slate in March that she went on a Minecraft fandom deep-dive in order to understand the vast web of streamers and lore; Anna said that her 14-year-old sister, who is deeply involved in the Minecraft space, was a "little bit of a secret weapon" in providing her with crucial knowledge.

Geary said that the team has improved as a result of feedback from fans.

Anna described one instance in which she wrote a trend description for a character from "Attack on Titan," a massively popular manga and anime series, including a plot point about their death. Some fans, she said, voiced their disappointment at having the story spoiled for them via the trends bar. As a result, the team ended up changing its guidance on media with spoiler potential. As Geary told OneZero, in this case that meant changing the description to something along the lines of "fans weigh in on latest episode of 'Titan.'"

While fandom has taught the trend description team lessons like the above, positive feedback from fans is a rewarding part of the job. The memes around "Description Man," Anna said, are a good sign.

"That's my favorite part, seeing your work being shared in these communities," Anna said. "Honestly, it's kind of the highlight of my day if that happens, because I feel like I've done my job in the sense of accurately representing the conversation."

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