Talking about Donald Trump and Twitter with an idealist from 2007

Josh from 2007: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe I’m talking to you ten years in the future.

Josh 2017: Yup. I’m here to tell you that you were right about social media blowing up. Even politicians are using it. But it turns out that connecting a politician’s brain directly to millions of voters isn’t quite as positive a thing as you had hoped.

Josh 2007: OK, let’s start at the beginning. When Charlene Li and I wrote Groundswell in 2007, the idea of using social media for business purposes was pretty new. Did anyone pay attention to it? Did we get it right?

Josh 2017: Well, some things turned out the way you expected. Charlene’s and your ideas were right on target for the time. The book sold 150,000 copies after Harvard Business Press published it in 2008. Facebook has over a billion users now. And over 300,000 people are using Twitter every quarter.

Josh 2007: Sweet! At the center of our book is the idea that companies (and politicians) would respond to and converse with their customers. We talked about five ways to engage: Listening, Talking, Supporting, Energizing, and Embracing. So, are companies actually doing all that?

Josh 2017: Not the way you expected. Companies are talking, but it’s basically just a broadcast channel, without much interaction. And they’re supporting their customers by using Twitter and Facebook to respond to customer service complaints. Some of them run communities and Facebook pages to stir up their fans, which you called energizing. But it hasn’t really made companies much more responsive.

Josh 2007: That’s sad. Well, you said social media had changed politics. Tell me about that.

Josh 2017: The Democratic nominee last year was Hillary Clinton.

Josh 2007: Hillary Clinton was running for president in 2007. She’s still running?

Josh 2017: She was. And she had a social media team. Everything on her Twitter and Facebook was carefully vetted. She got her base energized — in fact it’s still buzzing on a Facebook group called “Pantsuit Nation.” But she didn’t really energize enough of her fans to get people truly excited.

Josh 2007: Well, we always said that you have to be authentic and responsive to use social media properly. Sounds like she was operating just like a traditional politician or brand. And social media rejects that. The Republican candidate must have done a better job.

Josh 2017: Well, he did . . . sort of. The Republican nominee was Donald Trump.

Josh 2007: The reality TV star? The real estate guy? That Donald Trump?

Josh 2017: Yup. He appealed to people’s fears about losing jobs to immigrants. He tweeted constantly. And he got his Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, up to 36 million followers.

Josh 2007: Wow, what a success. Tell me about how he used Twitter. Here’s my prediction based on what you told me. Unlike the way you described with Hillary Clinton, I bet he used the real-time nature of Twitter to grab people’s attention. Based on what we wrote, he should have listened carefully to what his followers were saying, interacted with them, taken his cues from what was important to them, and amplified their voices. His Twitter would be highly visible, so he’d have to be accountable for everything he wrote there. He’d truly be a man of the people. Did I get that right?

Josh 2017: Not quite. You got the real-time part right. And he definitely energizes his followers and is sensitive to his idea of what they want. But you got a lot of it wrong. He never responds to critics in an interactive way — he’s always just firing more tweets out to distract people. He changes his positions all the time. He never gets into much in the way of detail. He’s “authentic” in the sense that you see exactly who he is. But that turns out to be a shallow, paranoid, and reactive personality that’s obsessed with himself.

Josh 2007: Well, based on what we wrote, everybody would see that. They’d penalize him for his transparently bad qualities. Social media cuts both ways. So I bet he lost the election, then. Who won?

Josh 2017: That’s complicated.

Josh 2007: How can it be complicated? Who won?

Josh 2017: Clinton got 2.9 million more votes than Trump. But Trump won in key states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, so he won the election.

Josh 2007: Wow. So now that Trump is president, I’m sure there are restrictions on how he can use social media. Every tweet would be a public statement. So he’d have to button it down pretty tightly.

Josh 2017: Nope. He’s still tweeting all the time. He’s combative, using Twitter posts to take on his critics and shift attention to the topics he wants to talk about. The media covers his tweets as if they are news, even though they’re sometimes at odds with his actual policies. It’s like no communications strategy we’ve ever seen in the corporate or political world.

Josh 2007: Sounds like a troll.

Josh 2017: He’s not anonymous. But he is reactive, vindictive, and mean. So not really a troll, but with some troll-like qualities.

Josh 2007: What we said in 2007 is that social media reveals your true values as a company. The same would apply to a politician. So how is the electorate responding to the this troll-like presidential Twitter account?

Josh 2017: It’s split. There are about 30 to 40% of voters who love this authentic, kick-ass president, spelling mistakes and all. They like the real-time responsiveness and the idea that he won’t back down. But the rest of the electorate has turned against him. He’s got a 56% disapproval rating, according to Gallup. He’s definitely polarized the country.

Josh 2007: Just because Trump uses Twitter this way doesn’t mean that every politician will use social media as a bludgeon. How has this influenced the rest of politics?

Josh 2017: Every politician uses Twitter now, and Facebook. They’re broadcast platforms. It’s shouting, pure and simple. Nobody is as effective with it as Trump is, but they’re trying.

Josh 2007: I wonder if a truly conversational and responsive candidate could bring the country back together. I still think that social media has that power. It can change the world.

Josh 2017: You’re such a fucking idealist. Grow up, man.

Josh 2007: Right. I just hope I don’t grow up to be as cynical as you.

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