Twitter Isn’t as Important as Trump or the Media Tries to Make It

Can We Dial Back Twitter’s Amplification Machine and Save America?

Twitter bubbles

Lifewire / Hilary Allison

Yesterday, Twitter launched a wide release of its significant desktop interface redesign. It’s a cleaner, smarter look that deprecates follower numbers, shuffles the deck on components like Trends and Who to Follow, and generally gives desktop a more mobile feel.

And I bet most of you couldn't care less.

It is a big deal for me, as I spend all day on Twitter, whether ingesting a fire hose of tweets on my smartphone or keeping a tab (or two) open in Chrome. Sometimes, I run the Twitter management tool Tweetdeck to turn that Twitter fire hose up to 11 with multiple topic streams and access to a few of the accounts I manage.

I’ve been running a preview of the redesign for weeks, so yesterday’s redesign roll-out gave me a rare opportunity to stand back from the hubbub of #NewTwitter and see it through a slightly disinterested party’s eye. It also helped me understand something even more important about Twitter and its current role in our roiled society.

What I saw on Twitter was media reacting to the Twitter update like news of a new polio vaccine. Okay, I may be exaggerating, but for eight or so hours, I watched as one tech reporter after another confronted their #NewTwitter, assessed it, and pondered its meaning. Hundreds of millions more people use Microsoft Windows, but we rarely spend this much time anymore talking about Windows interface changes. And yet, changes to our go-to social platform receive disproportionate attention on, naturally, the platform itself.

New Twitter

Twitter Magic

This is Twitter’s gift: the ability to take a small change, a single thought, a crackpot idea, and spin it up into something like a tiny firestorm. Twitter is full of daily dust devils, those small, heat-generated whirlwinds that look and act like mini tornadoes. They flare up quickly on the sunniest of days, spin around some open space wreaking havoc, and then disappear.

Few platforms are better for navel-gazing. We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying over Twitter features and updates. And by “we” I mean media and tech reporters who treat Twitter like an intravenous drip of critical information. Things done on Twitter are often blown out of proportion with alarming speed because the most active people on Twitter (aside from brands and celebrities) are media types, whose jobs it is to find and report news, and, yes, news happens on Twitter.

Perhaps the only person who understands this better than the media is our own Twitterer-in-Chief, President Donald Trump. At a recent White House social media summit, Trump polished his Twitter follower growth (or shrinkage) philosophy to a fine point, explaining to attendees,

“I used to watch [my follower count], it'd be like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty. When I put out something, a good one that people like, right? A good Tweet. It goes up. It used to go up, it would say: 7,000, 7,008, 7,017, 7,024, 7,032, 7,044. Right? Now it goes: 7,000, 7,008, 6,998. Then they go: 7,009, 6,074. I said, what's going on?"

Like most avid Twitter users, Trump noticed that Twitter’s spam house-cleaning was having an adverse impact on his follower count growth. Of course, Trump’s assumption is that Twitter is somehow targeting him and other conservatives.

Trump may, in fact, be the only person watching Twitter more closely than the media. But Trump suffers from the same delusion that I and other Twitter users do, that everyone is paying attention to Twitter and individual follower counts.
The numbers tell a different story.

Twitter Monthly Active Users
 Twitter

The Amplification Game

Twitter has roughly 330M monthly active users (MAU) around the world. More than three-quarters of them are outside the U.S. Twitter puts its U.S. MAU at 68 million (down a million from the same time last year). According to the Pew Research Center, just 10% of Twitter’s most prolific Tweeters create 80% of Twitter’s content.

What’s missing from that stat, though, is the out-sized influence of such a minuscule, active Twitter army. Those in the media cover the news and disseminate it to an often ill-informed public. Similarly, Trump uses the megaphone of Twitter to amplify his most petty, bizarre, and calculated thoughts. Trump is writing those tweets in part for his 62M-follower base, many of which are likely bots (many of my followers are spam and bots, too; it’s the nature of Twitter) but he’s mostly writing those tweets for the media audience sitting on Twitter waiting for his next tweet.

As a Twitter and Trump-obsessed audience, the people of media Twitter do exactly what you would expect. They pour some gasoline on the tweets, set them ablaze, and then fan out the smoke over a nation-sized area.

I had this epiphany while watching Tech Media Twitter react, grouse, and adjust to New Twitter while the rest of the platform was still grappling with Trump’s racist tweets about sitting U.S. Congresspeople and the subsequent Trump tweets double-downing on those same sentiments.

We’re all being played.

Most Active Twitter Users
 Pew Research

Social Media Cudgel

Twitter as a social media platform isn’t the problem, but its position as a viral media center, a sort of Bizarro AP newswire, has turned it into something co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey never envisioned: a Frankenstein’s laboratory of piecemeal fact, rhetoric, real and faux outrage, and a handful of people who, perhaps unwittingly, know how to spin that concoction into a real-time monster.

Which leads me to two thoughts, one obvious and the other a bit more provocative:

Twitter’s redesign doesn’t matter at all.

What would happen if no one reported on Trump’s Tweets?

Taking away instant media reaction to “Trump shakes his fist at the sky again” would remove one of his most powerful tools, the one he uses to wedge angry sentiment between people. The size of that wedge is defined by media Twitter reaction.

Without Twitter, Trump would be forced to make those same statements directly to the nation’s 300 million people in the Rose Garden or from behind the Resolute Desk. Would he?