How Donald Trump Skillfully Taps Into Twitter's "Ocean of Emotional Chaos" (Guest Column)

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Author Douglas Rushkoff, who coined the term "viral media," reveals how POTUS successfully pushes buttons on the social media site, which "rewards those who can generate an immediate response."

Donald Trump is no more the master of Twitter than Twitter is the master of him. And while Twitter elevated an upstart, attention-seeking candidate, it may not prove as friendly an environment for a president who may actually want to get stuff done.

Twitter may let people do an end run around the media's traditional gatekeepers, but it does so at a price. Social media platforms make money by tracking the flow of posts and reposts. They are selling the currents of influence and the data that can be gathered about each user. More tweets and retweets mean more data and more money, so the whole platform is optimized to trigger impulsive sharing and resharing. It rewards those who can generate an immediate response. If a tweet doesn't generate that instantaneous call to action in the two seconds it took to read, it won't get retweeted and will scroll out of sight, forever.

Both the algorithms driving Twitter and the culture that has grown on the platform are driven by impulsiveness. Stars who succeed in provoking a broad response tend to do so by breaking accepted rules or just breaking down: the human equivalent of those car crashes that force us to turn our heads.

That's why the most successful personalities on Twitter are less significant for the content they're creating than for the emotions they are tapping. It's not tweets but retweets that tell the story. They're like a direct feed from the collective cultural unconscious. An ocean of emotional chaos. This is more true on Twitter than on Facebook, which has home pages and some semblance of geographical landmarks and categories. Twitter is just a fire hose. It is the standing wave of culture at any given moment.

Charlie Sheen was the last figure to get the sort of national attention that Trump has been garnered. And it wasn't because he was saying anything so brilliant or entertaining. He simply jumped into that standing wave of culture and surfed it for all it was worth. Then he wiped out.

Likewise, Donald Trump didn't do anything particularly creative or substantive on Twitter. He simply recognized the undertow, threw himself into the current and surfed it all the way to the presidency. In that sense, Trump served more as a vessel for Twitter's agenda than Twitter served as a vessel for his.

As an acting president rather than a contentious upstart, however, our Tweeter in Chief may have a problem. Twitter favors the underdog, the one tilting at windmills. The crowd can't help but retweet a grenade thrown from the bottom up and against an established power. They're likely to feel differently about a president lobbing insults down at his lessers. At the very least, he'll have to choose between giving his 22 million Twitter followers the sensationalist car crashes they will retweet or the good governance they'll ignore.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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