At this moment, you’re one Google search away from Donald Trump’s eight-year Twitter history—a corpus composed of 36,200 messages. Often, even those who don’t use Twitter end up seeing or hearing about these 140-character media bursts, a series of “sound-bytes” that tells us what the President is thinking, doing, or planning. Many users appreciate the updates (Trump has some 41 million followers) while others critique his use of social media (a quick Google search will show you that). While there are strong opinions on both sides, few voices argue that his presence on Twitter is unimportant.
Yet many world leaders make use of the platform, often without incident or attention. Pope Francis’s account has only a quarter of Trump’s audience, though the pontiff leads a much larger flock, and his tweets rarely garner public outrage. Other presidents, prime ministers, and politicians find Twitter an efficient platform for reaching their constituents. Why, then, is Trump’s media so controversial—and why do more and more users follow him?
It might be more helpful (and more constructive) to consider this question in light of how we use social platforms ourselves. For your convenience, here are some lessons we can learn from Trump’s Twitter history, reducible to 140-character overarching maxims.
1. Choose your thoughts wisely—word limits are short, and attention spans shorter. Perhaps the defining characteristic of Twitter format is its brevity. The restrictions, however, are not always a blessing, as shorter messages demand succinct thoughts. You have to trim the excess, sacrifice a few clever quips, and make decisions on content—and all of these editorial processes take precision. In a world where messages can be shared instantaneously, the pressures of crafting and drafting well-written content are somewhat removed. The focus of the message can become entertainment value, rather than meaningful reflection. This leads us to the second danger…
2. Don’t let brevity steer you into sensationalism. One of the dangers of that short Twitter format is its capacity for exaggerated content. Brief messages have to engage the reader’s interest without delay, leading many writers to gravitate towards over-hyped generalization. Many of Trump’s tweets address the “fake news” controversy, tensions between North Korea, and alleged election scandals. These are topics that can easily become sensationalized, given heightened emotion and decreased editing. At the same time, the news that is most often sensationalized is the same news in need of serious treatment—making faithful journalism one casualty of an alarmist culture.
On October 22nd, for example, Trump tweets: “46% OF PEOPLE BELIEVE MAJOR NATIONAL NEWS ORGS FABRICATE STORIES ABOUT ME. FAKE NEWS…” Capital letters, the literary equivalent of a blinking neon sign, are designed to be eye-catching. Perhaps we should always be suspicious when others’ opinions (or our own) are only validated by pandering and embellishment. That is to say…
3. Communication is an art. We spend much of our time speaking, writing, texting, smiling, and figuring out other ways to get our point across to others. It’s easy to let a common custom lose its grace and style, but at its heart, communication is a skill that’s neglected more often than it’s mastered. We can learn many lessons about this art through an examination of Trump’s tweets—for example, we see the importance of sentence variation (Trump’s messages follow an offensively repetitive format), the dangers of unprofessionalism (Trump calls many politicians by insulting nicknames), and the blight of the rhetorical question. We will all learn these lessons through trial and error. But perhaps the most important choice in communication comes at the start, when we decide whether or not something is worth saying. Much controversy over Trump’s use of Twitter could be potentially abated by a spirit of discernment—a spirit which asks not only how and when to say something, but whether to say it at all.