As anyone who heard “Imagine” fifty times at the dentist will tell you, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon. The former Beatle has always been a cultural lightning rod, in part because of his intense popularity among people who do not otherwise like music, and in part because he was—in perhaps the most accessible, non-threatening use of the phrase ever—the smart one.* It was therefore satisfyingly ironic when, around 11:30 Eastern yesterday morning, “Lenon” eclipsed “Lennon” as a trending topic on Twitter. “Lenon” continued its meteoric rise throughout the day and, as of this writing, has knocked “Lennon” clean off the trending topics list. It was a watershed moment in the measurement of world stupidity. Either that or it was a startlingly apt metaphor for our national discourse, naturally synthesized by our most contemporary medium of communication—a free hint from the ghost in the machine.
Probably it was both. To come to grips with this awesome metaphor in a way that does not threaten our psychological safety, we must consider certain muddling factors. Twitter uses a particular algorithm to compile its trending topics, and that algorithm rewards novelty above popularity. Trending topics shows what people are talking about all of a sudden, not what people are talking about most, presumably to avoid putting “lol” at the top of the list every damn day.
This system gives “Lenon” a distinct advantage over “Lennon,” since correct spellings of the Beatle’s name have likely been floating around the twit-o-sphere a lot longer and in greater numbers. “Lenon” also enjoys the advantage of being consistent with romance-language phonetics. The Beatles aren’t just an American phenomenon—for example, they seemed to have a significant following in England—and a quick look at the tweets containing “Lenon” reveals a preponderance of Spanish and Portuguese users spelling “Lennon” as comes natural. That’s hardly an excuse when it comes to spelling a famous person’s name, but it is an explanation.
By far the greatest contributor to the success of “Lenon,” however, was popular outrage. Thousands of people tweeted their disbelief that “Lenon” was beating “Lennon” among trending topics, which of course drove “Lenon” further up the list. Here’s an illustrative example of the form:
Between the Twilight avatar, the muggles reference and the username, this is perhaps the most archetypal tweet in history. Notice, though, that therealdiggory has inadvertently become an expression of the phenomenon he criticizes. He probably meant to demand that people spell “Lennon” the correct way, but he effed it up. In so doing, he joined thousands of other users who, in their attempts to draw attention to the sheer stupidity of the “Lenon” trend, used the word in their tweets.
The putsch was strengthened when people realized it was happening. Evidence that some of the “Lenon” explosion was deliberate can be seen in the mini-trends of “Pawl MacCartney,” “Jeorge Harryson” and—most successfully—”Ringu Starr.” As “Lenon” became an observable phenomenon, it grew to encompass not just those who did it unconsciously but also those who observed it. And here is where the metaphor kicks in.
Let us consider another trending topic in recent history, the “death panels” that were supposedly part of President Obama’s health care reforms. The rumor was initially publicized by Sarah Palin, whose entire political career is the equivalent of a tweet saying, “John Lenon changed my life.” “Death panels” was a viable meme on its own, but it was the second-degree, critical reaction that secured its niche in the ecosystem. In our haste to point out the many ways in which “death panels” was retarded as both a concept and a phenomenon, we propelled it to the forefront of debate. We made it a trending topic—paradoxically immortal for a short time.
So here, done up in neat 140-character packages, is our contemporary discourse. Half of us are consumed by the vital importance of John Lenon, 30% of us are enraged at the audacity of that position, and 20% of us are trolling. Exactly what we should do about that—in a prescriptive, avoid-the-collapse-of-civilization kind of way—is unclear. We could restrain ourselves from flying into “It’s ‘Lennon,’ not “Lenon'” arguments, but that would only cede the field to the Lenonists. Our hope might lie with the snarky 20%, but a discourse that encourages the smartest members of the population to participate ironically is presumably not good for western civilization. Given the complexity of the issue, we should probably just avoid Twitter entirely.