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  • Max Stearns

Twitter Theory: From Covfefe to a Bloody Head

Although I have recently taken to Twitter, I’m not very good at it. As far as I can tell, my tweets are like trees falling in the forest with no one (or very few) present, raising the metaphysical question whether they make a sound. I was skeptical about tweeting for that very reason and because I have long had my own theory of tweeting.

People tweet because they wish to get some form of attention, respecting an accomplishment, an idea, a political position, or virtually anything. To be sure, many people who tweet don’t really care about the size of their Twitter following; some are merely seeking to convey information, and others are signaling to friends, or even to institutional stakeholders, that they are performing what some consider a social media obligation. My theory doesn’t apply to such tweeters.

For those who seek to thrive in this medium, the goal is to get people to focus, for however long, on a 140-character signal. How do you do that? This is where Twitter Theory comes in. There is a theoretical line, which I’ll call the “line of offense.” The goal is to get as close as possible to that line but never to cross it. Crossing it can have severe, indeed career- or other life-altering, consequences.

One of the sadder illustrations was Justine Sacco. After a series of tweets about the challenges of international travel en route to Cape Town, South Africa, Ms. Sacco, senior director of corporate communications at IAC, tweeted the following from the Heathrow Airport: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” See here. Eleven hours later, and after sleeping for most of the flight, she was greeted with an old friend’s message lamenting what had happened to Sacco. Although Ms. Sacco herself had a mere 170 followers (still more than me!), Jon Ronson, and others, picked up on her tweet and spread it like a virus (Ms. Sacco and Mr. Ronson later became friends as recounted in the preceding link).

The Sacco incident informed my Twitter theory. The problem is that to grab attention you have to be provocative. In a world with few provocateurs, this isn’t a big challenge. But in a world in which many people are vying for attention, you have to be more and more provocative simply to be noticed. This means that you have to get closer and closer to this ill-defined line of offense, while somehow reminding yourself before each tweet never to cross it. And since no one is there to tell you where that critical line actually is, it is up to you to gauge both its location and your comfort level for risk should you, well, step on it, as Sacco tragically did.

So too did Kathy Griffin. An image of a President’s bloody severed head sent via Twitter is reprehensible. The image is gruesome, and it isn’t surprising that the public condemnation was swift, bipartisan, and unrelenting. See here and here. The issue is not merely the anticipated reaction of the President’s eleven-year-old son, see here; the tweet was even a potential criminal offense. The Secret Service is on this, see here, and one thing is certain. Ms. Griffen wanted attention, but not that attention.

Our President exhibits signs that one might well associate with mental illness. In addition to his apparent narcissistic tendencies, he has long exhibited an impulse control disorder of considerable magnitude. I recognized this early on, and I routinely sent the list of his Twitter insults, catalogued by the New York Times, to make my point to anyone who would listen during the campaign. See here. I’m not a psychotherapist, and I won’t offer a formal diagnosis, which I am not qualified to give in any event. (If I were, I’d likely be subject to the Goldwater Rule, see here.) Those who were paying attention knew, or suspected, this for a very long time, and for me, this is one of the many reasons why I pleaded with those who would listen that I thought it morally irresponsible not to take all necessary (and lawful) steps to prevent Trump from winning. To me this equated to a moral obligation to support Hillary Clinton, who despite her obvious flaws as a candidate, seemed at the time to be the only candidate who could defeat Trump. Without relitigating the campaign, I was persuaded of this before the primary cycle wrapped up, and it certainly seemed obvious (except in hindsight) by the time of the general election. To me it was irredeemably dangerous to place this unstable person in such a position of power, and whatever one thinks of Clinton or the policies of the Democratic party, she did not pose an existential threat to the United States (or beyond). The President of the United States routinely, and with little advance warning, confronts innumerable lines of offense, and it takes great knowledge, balance, and skill to avoid stepping on them. Twitter theory applies to more than just tweets. Mr. Trump lacks those skills, in addition to any willingness or capacity to overcome his deficits.

This morning, Trump undermined his own DOJ team’s defense of his poorly constructed, and thinly veiled, travel ban. See here. Trump cannot even control his impulse to harm members of his own team who are seeking to defend his indefensible policies. On May 31 at 12:06 am, Trump introduced a new word: Covfefe. Some were amused; most were bewildered. I was frightened. To me this demonstrated that the President is not even in control of the single medium he prides himself as controlling: his tweets.

Twitter theory also reveals some of the challenges of blogging. A while back, I posted a blog, subtitled “The Dimensionality of Trumpism.” See here. It was, frankly, a nerdy post, using spatial reasoning to explore the likely impact of the Trump Administration on the eventual dimensional line up of the Democratic and Republican parties. It was my final entry in a four-part series, titled “Ideological Blindspots,” and although I thought it important to the theme of this blog, I also feared the four-part sequence was pushing the limits of blogging. I didn’t anticipate much response. Well over a thousand people read it, more than any other single post thus far. The world has a seeming insatiable appetite for all things Trump. Trump posting is like a moth to the flame, or a tweeter to the line of offense. We approach at our peril, but we avoid at our irrelevance. Trump is a force to be reckoned with. He is dangerous, irresponsible, ill-informed, yet undeniably the focal point of pretty much all of our public conversations. He sucks all other energy out of the room, even virtual chat rooms in cyberspace.

I’m not particularly motivated by the number of hits on my blog, and certainly not tweets (or retweets), although I will still tweet about this. I’ll plug along. My goal is not, and will not be, to get precariously close to the line of offense. I’ll stake out positions, even controversial ones, as appropriate, but not for the sake of it. In some sense, I feel bad for those who have defined themselves as part of the Trump media industry. The party will end. Let’s just hope it ends less badly than some ill-conceived tweets.

I welcome, as always, your comments.

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