As President-Elect Trump wraps up his first news conference since July, and maybe the last he'll give until we're at war with someone, the San Francisco Chronicle gives us a somewhat speculative piece about how Trump's use of Twitter, and his popularity on it, could mark the nail in the coffin for the scream-typing platform. Reporter Thomas Lee uses as evidence the trajectory of Trump's Twitter use as a "once quixotic" candidate, which began in July 2015 (he's been using Twitter, though, since March 2009), noting that Twitter's stock price has tumbled 52 percent since mid-2015, to $17.37 a share. (That is up from a low of $13.90 last May.) This despite Trump now having 19.5 million followers, and Twitter ostensibly being "the almost-exclusive mouthpiece for the soon-to-be leader of the free world."
That latter fact is of course pathetic, given that Twitter has made it possible for a leader of the free world to express himself, 140 characters at a time, in the kind of petulant, half-thought-out 5 a.m. tweetstorms formerly reserved for your angry uncle with a drinking problem. Has Trump slipped fully into the role of mascot for the world's biggest, least censored and least policed literal bully pulpit?
But there's a business angle to this, too. "If anything," Lee writes, "Trump's Twitter addiction shines an even harsher spotlight on the company’s impotence in generating profit or significantly expanding its user base." He discusses the often discussed fact that Twitter reported a net gain of 3.2 percent in their user base, year over year, as of September 2016, while competitor Facebook with much more stringent, though flawed, rules and enforcement around offensive content and abuse saw growth of almost 16 percent in the same period, with active users now at 1.78 billion worldwide.
But was Twitter ever properly built as a money-making tool? Or was it always doomed to be just the chaotic, vitriol- and gibberish-filled global chatroom that it's become, not to mention an avenue to fame and notoriety for the formerly obscure? It's notable that Trump rarely engages either his fans or his critics on Twitter, using it primarily as an unfiltered soapbox for his defensiveness and largely negative rhetoric and now spur-of-the-moment, not-thought-out policy decisions perhaps because even he would get overwhelmed having to keep up with the thousand conversations that would spur, as anyone except Jack Dorsey would.
One internet stocks analyst, Neil Doshi, points out that Twitter's most essential flaw is that they're giving away their content you don't have to be active on Twitter to see what Trump says on there, because now his every tweet is picked up by broadcast and print media nationwide.
And Trump epitomizes the kind of hard-headed, dishonest, egomaniacal bully who, as on any unsupervised playground, has come to represent the ruling class on Twitter. He who shouts the loudest and has the most followers wins, no matter what bullshit they're spouting or who they're hurting in the process.
Back near the start of his campaign for President, Trump embraced Twitter and even did a live Q&A at the company's New York offices in September 2015 something that led to plenty of trolling about his hair, his political views, and more, though the only questions he probably saw were the softballs cherry-picked by Twitter staff. Clearly, though, he was already aware of the power available to a celebrity directly speaking his mind on Twitter.
What's your favorite racial slur? #AskTrump— Chase (@chasebrignac) September 21, 2015
Twitter has suggested, vaguely, that they wouldn't stop short of suspending or banning Trump's account if he engaged in abusive behavior, but perhaps that's why he barely ever engages anyone though he did, famously, retweet a comment from a 16-year-old, who was clearly a source to be trusted when it came to voter fraud.
Umair Haque, director of Havas Media Labs, wrote an essay for the Harvard Business Review a year ago suggesting that Twitter's loss in active users is directly attributable to all the chaos and abuse. "It’s less like a town square and something more like a mosh pit," he writes.
Further, he says:
The social incentives online still somehow work in reverse [from real life]. Consider: call a dozen strangers names in real life, and you’ll probably get punched in the face six times. Punch six people in the face, and at least one of them is likely to call the police. But do it digitally, and 1,000 fake friends will magically appear from nowhere and actually cheer you on, while the tech companies hosting the mob won’t do much to stop (much less prevent) it. Hence, a downward spiral of cruelty.
He suggests that the Twitter mosh pit is simply a product of our "age of discontent," and both trolls and Trump alike are simply capitalizing a cycle of abuse and reward that already exists. And, he asserts that Twitter (and Facebook, in part) treat abuse as a nuisance to be dealt with, rather than a core business issue in an age when so many of our public interactions are of such low quality. "Offering low-quality interactions in an omni-connected world is just like selling defective products, the interaction age equivalent of faulty auto parts in the industrial age, or false advertising in the branding age," he writes.
Trump is, after all, the king of discontent as well as the king of all trolls. He symbolizes the worst of what's driving intelligent and engaged people off the platform, like writer Lindy West, who defected from the platform last week saying it's become "unusable for anyone but trolls, robots, and dictators."
Obviously that's not the kind of PR Twitter wants or needs. And neither are the stories from countless other journalists, celebrities, minorities, and your own friends about being harassed by racist/homophobic/misogynistic and generally hateful people hiding behind anonymous accounts. But what happens when Twitter becomes the venue from which a president incites war, nuclear or otherwise? What happens when the bluster and half-truths of a blowhard candidate become the un-erasable public record of a world leader that have an immediate effect on foreign relations, or lead to a loss of lives? Are we really still going to be looking at their stock price then?