How significant can a tweet can be? We can point to isolated cases of individual tweets going viral, creating controversy and producing material outcomes in the world. But isolated tweets rarely have such significance. Instead, we need to look at a Twitter feed as a unit of analysis, taking someone’s entire output on the platform as a sustained trajectory of action. This is precisely what Peter Oborne and Tom Roberts do in How Trump Thinks: His Tweets And the Birth of a New Political Language. It’s not a systematic analysis and there are clear limits to it e.g. the failure to state any principles upon which selections have been made from Trump’s output. But I found it a thought-provoking book, both in terms of understanding Trump’s self-formation as a political figure and how we might approach Twitter methodologically.
There are trivial though interesting biographical details which can be ascertained about Trump through the examination of the feed. For instance the consistency with which he tweets extremely early in the morning and very late at nights lends credence to his claim about sleeping little. Looking at how these tweets are sequenced raises fascinating questions about how Trump spends his time and the psychological state in which he takes to social media. From loc 4084:
In this extraordinary sequence of Tweets, despatched in less than two hours before dawn on 4 March, Donald Trump accused his predecessor of illegally tapping his phone and of being malevolent or mentally ill; attempted to conflate Obama’s routine meetings with the Russian Ambassador at the White House with Trump’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s undeclared discussions during the election with the representative of a foreign power; and poured scorn on Arnold Schwarzenegger for his failure to sustain Trump’s TV franchise.
As they say, “Twitter is the medium which allows Trump to expose these thoughts to the world in real time”. Uses of Twitter which seems ill-judged can reveal much more about the user than their learned capacity to deploy it for personal gain. But the more important features, to which Osborne devotes much of his attention, concern his evolving strategy and relationship to the platform. He offers a plausible narrative of Trump coming to find his voice on Twitter, a process tied up with his developing preoccupation with the power of the platform and the reach it affords him:
My twitter account is now reaching more people than the New York Times-not bad. And we’re only going to get better! 11:14 AM –4 Apr 2012
With almost 1.3 million followers and rising really fast, everyone is asking me to critique things(and people). Finally, I will be a critic. 11:41 AM –11 Jun 2012
Today we just passed 1.4 million twitter followers.. 11:09 AM –23 Aug 2012
Happy to have just passed 1.3M Twitter followers. Love communicating with everyone daily. 3:51 PM –2 Jul 2012
Today we just passed 1.4 million twitter followers.. 11:09 AM –23 Aug 2012
Happy to have just passed 1.5M followers on twitter. We picked up over 14,000 yesterday alone. It’s great to speak to everyone daily. 10:31 AM –4 Oct
My twitter followers will soon be over 2 million-& all the “biggies.” It’s like having your own newspaper. 10:07 AM –17 Oct 2012
Wow, I have just exceeded 2 million followers-and in such a short time! 10:38 AM –14 Jan 2013
Obviously in no sense does he ‘reach’ this headline figure. There is a revealing naïveté about how he treats this follower count, something it is hard to ascribe to a strategy of simply trumpeting his own demonstrable advance in social media status. We can’t know that he cares about this stuff. But the evidence suggests that he does. His preoccupation with the size of his following is allied with an irritation that not all the reaction he generates is positive:
It’s okay but why do the haters (& losers) want to follow me on twitter?? Get a life! 1:39 PM –12 Feb 2013
My Twitter has been seriously hacked-and we are looking for the perpetrators. 12:00 PM –21 Feb 2013
Twitter will soon be irrelevant if lowlifes are so easily able to hack into accounts. 1:57 PM –21 Feb 2013
I have many great people but also an amazing number of haters and losers responding to my tweets-why do these lowlifes follow nothing to do! 3:34 AM –24 Apr 2013
Wow, I’m at 2,200,000 followers but I’d love to get rid of the haters & losers—they’re such a waste of time! 11:50 AM –25 Apr 2013
But it ultimately seems to be worth it. On numerous occasions he draws the analogy between his personal platform on social media and owning a newspaper. When he enters the presidential race, he styles social media as facilitating his one-man fight back against a crooked established which is stacked against him. Driven by the value he finds in the platform, he continues to celebrate numerical milestones as his Twitter career continues:
“@Heaveenly: @realDonaldTrump how does it feel to have 2.1 million followers” Great like owning The New York Times without the lo$$es! . 8:04 PM –7 May 2013
Just hit a million on Facebook-http://t.co/FDv4aLoomz
Wow, honored to just pass 2.5M followers on @twitter. Thanks to all my followers. We are going to have a great year together.
Congrats everyone-we topped 4 million today on Twitter-and heading up fast! 1:41 PM –1 Sep 2015
He writes about his tweeting in terms of a relationship with his followers and a personal capacity he excels it. As he put it in a Tweet from July 2014, “Many people have said I’m the world’s greatest writer of 140 character sentences”. His professed skill at tweeting is what underwrites his imagined relationship with his followers. Through his skill, he builds a relationship with his followers and through the ever-expanding platform that ensues, he accumulates power. As he declares on 17 Oct 2012, “My twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”
He regularly reflects on the specific practices which lead him to accumulate followers:
Everybody’s talking about my doing twitter during the likely very boring debate tonight. @realDonaldTrump #DemDebate 10:09 AM – 13 Oct 2015
#DemDebate was really boring but had a lot of fun live tweeting and picked up by far the most followers. 9:57 AM – 14 Oct 2015
Brian–Thanks dummy–I picked up 70,000 twitter followers yesterday alone. Cable News just passed you in the ratings. 12:14PM -7 Nov 2012
This includes retweeting his followers, selectively landing a platform to those without visibility, resonant of his election rhetoric about the forgotten, at least when they talk in a way congruent with his own ego:
“@redneckgp: All you haters out there, STOP trashing the only candidate @realDonaldTrump that will put ALL OF YOU & AMERICA FIRST #trump” 9:32 PM –8 Apr 2016
Dennis Bryant (Twitter handle “RedneckGP”) at this point had seventy-five Twitter followers. He suddenly found himself retweeted to Trump’s then 8 million followers. Trump loved to lift his supporters from obscurity. This was one way he established an emotional bond with his supporters.
“@phickeyma: When I come home from work my Twitter page is filled with Donald Trump tweets…Love reading them…So Bold & Truthful.” 5:36 PM –18 Oct 2013
Trump loved to retweet messages from his followers, thus forging a personal bond with voters. In the election year of 2016 Retweets would come to form approximately half of his Twitter output.
What interests me is his developing relationship with the metrics. As he sustains his engagement on the platform, he reports upon his own ‘progress’ in ever more granular ways. He’s concerned with what ‘works’ and what doesn’t. He has data about his ‘growth’ ready-to-hand. There is a relational biography here concerning himself and the platform, as well as the real and imagined relationship it facilitates to his followers. I’m interested in what this case illustrates about imagination and social media, how numbers become means through which dreams come to seem realisable. I’ll come back to this in a later post but I couldn’t resist ending on this tweet:
With almost 1.3 million followers and rising really fast, everyone is asking me to critique things(and people). Finally, I will be a critic. 1141 AM – 11 Jun 2012