With all contingencies in play, it would be better for you, the individual, not to trend on Twitter. This is true for the same reasons you wouldn’t necessarily want to see a front-page newspaper headline with your name in it: Big news is often bad, and bad news about you is worse. On social media, moreover, the punishment is continuous. Once the chatter about you snowballs into a trending topic, people are further incentivized to address it, and any hint of backlash becomes a full-on dogpile.
When a famous name trends, we are primed to assume a negative: Politicians pop up for saying something monstrous or stupid; athletes for botched plays and season-ending injuries; New York Times columnist David Brooks for accidentally outing himself as a virgin. And, once upon a time, the appearance of a celebrity or public figure over the age of 50 in the trend column foretold their death. Even if you clicked through to find the person still alive, going viral for a soundbite, you experienced a little gut-check in the Schrödinger moment of quantum flux before the actual reveal. For an instant, you acclimated to the idea that this director or rock star was no more.
Post-Weinstein, though, the Hollywood and media elite whose names are elevated by the algorithm suffer a fate worse than death: They’re assumed to have committed atrocious (or Spacey-, O’Reilly-, Toback-, Ratner-, Halperin-, whoever-comes-next-level) acts of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, etc.
I mean, surely few of us expected George H.W. Bush to trend without an obituary right behind it.
We have shifted from an awareness that anybody could die at any moment to the paranoia that comes with these repeated exposures — the fear that almost any male of power and privilege has abused them at some point.
We saw this in real-time when Jason Bateman, an actor known for his nice-guy characters, trended briefly on the evening of Halloween. Had someone spoken out about him? Would one account break the dam for several more accusers?
The truth was comically innocent: Bateman attended World Series Game 6, and listened to the audio broadcast, no less.
Until Twitter gains the knack for contextualizing its hottest topics, this may be the new normal — each recognizable name a potential portal to sleazy revelations. But our confusion says more about the present cultural moment than the platform’s foibles. Already the waves of the “Weinstein Effect” are crashing on distant shores, and we can expect an armada’s worth of other leaky reputations to capsize by 2018.
The result, fittingly, is a sort of living death. You witness your legacy shredded and future projects canceled. You’re purged from professional and social circles. What presence you retain in old movies or bygone touchstones (remember how Spacey framed himself in Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscars selfie?) feels poisonous and haunting.
What a trending name typically means nowadays is: “They’re not dead yet, but you may wish they were.”