“Lenon” surpasses “Lennon” on Twitter, creating awesome metaphor

John Lennon, seen here in a phase of his expression that proved less popular than repeating how a woman loves you

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.

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  1. so it turns out that the dude from twilight played a dude named diggory in a harry potter movie and that pic looks like it’s from HP, not twilight.

  2. Actually, you should recall that “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson starred as Cedric Diggory in the 2007 film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” (from which his avatar was clearly screengrabbed) which makes his “muggles” exclamation not only apt, but thematically consistent with his name and avatar!

    (Now, to post this anonymously so that I do not get broken up with by my girlfriend or permanently banned from the blog… post comment… and DONE!)

  3. Not to be the biggest nerd of all here, but Robert Pattinson starred as Cedric Diggory in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”, not the Order of the Phoenix.

  4. Serbian spelling rules dictate that all foreign words and names be transposed into the hyper-phonetic, wonderful Serbian alphabets (Latin or Cyrillic, your pick), so a Serb commenting on Lennon would correctly twit “Lenon”. (Not so for the Spanish and Portuguese, but as you pointed out, one can see where they’re coming from.)

    OK, it’s probably true that Lenon as trending didn’t come from a hoard of Serbian twits, but the real question should be why we haven’t yet adopted this phonetic spelling. The people who twitted Lenon were unwittingly aiding the improvement of the language; those of us who are a little more aware should recognize the genius of their improvement and adopt it. English used to be a lot more flexible, but our snobbery and stubbornness are hindering its development.

    There’s the 0.0001 percent iconoclastic ultra snarky Mose view, anyway. I will never twit.

  5. That’s some symmetry: The Beatles were more popular than Jesus and now Lenon is more popular than Lennon.

    Just read this article last night: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/12/03/the-legacy-of-john-lennon-s-death.html

    An excerpt:
    “…looking back, it’s clear that Lennon’s most enduring achievement, aside from all those monumental songs, wasn’t that he managed to become astronomically famous. It was the example he set by scrutinizing and seizing control of this wild new form of fame, then fashioning it into a functional thing […] “We’ve got this machine, and we’ll try and make use of it, for good, and not just to have a machine.”

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