The violent and tragic Trump presidency is finally coming to an end, with an anything-but-peaceful transfer of power. In the future, the history books will forever record the way that Trump used Twitter, and the way that Twitter let him abuse the service until the point of actual insurrection.
I have been pondering what it was about Donald Trump and his use of Twitter that made this era so wild. It finally dawned on me in the wake of Trump’s permanent suspension from Twitter (whatever that means, make it permanent): it wasn’t just how he used those tweets to spread disinformation, attack random individuals, or fire Senate-confirmed officials. It was that Donald Trump has been using Twitter exactly the way the product was designed and built to work at its most fundamental level.
From a metrics and user point of view, the abstract notion of the President himself tweeting was exactly what Twitter wanted in its original platonic ideal. Twitter has been built to incentivize someone like Trump to engage and post, and for the ultimate blue checkmark like the President of the United States, that created a flywheel of affirmation that drove more tweets in an endless cycle. When you add in the fact that almost none of Twitter’s content rules applied to President Trump, for the last four years, there has been no significant barrier--or friction--to the most powerful man in the world sharing his thoughts with the world.
Twitter made Donald Trump the first frictionless President of the United States.
Most Margin readers do not need a primer on what product friction is, but for the broader audience, my colleague and I described friction this summer as: “anything that inhibits user action within a digital interface, particularly anything that requires an additional click or screen.” For much of my time in the technology sector, friction was almost always seen as the enemy, a force to be vanquished. A “frictionless” experience was generally held up as the ideal state, the optimal product state. The irony is that all of his behavior on Twitter probably fit the original desired user endstate in a product spec, except for the part where that came close to destroying our democracy--as the President’s words have unique and literal power.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Trump found himself addicted to Twitter. As Ben Smith wrote a few weeks ago in his New York Times column, “If you haven’t had the experience of posting something on social media that goes truly viral, you may not understand its profound emotional attraction. You’re suddenly the center of a digital universe, getting more attention from more people than you ever have. The rush of affirmation can be giddy, and addictive. And if you have little else to hold on to, you can lose yourself to it.” Trump was riding the ultimate frictionless optimized engagement Twitter experience: he rode it all the way to the presidency, and then he crashed the presidency into the ground.
Twitter almost certainly started to internalize the danger of this lack of friction in the last few years:not just from Trump but on the spread of mis- and disinformation generally. They took unprecedented and positive steps to literally limit their product functionality and introduce friction in an attempt to prevent the spread of disinformation and violence in the weeks before the election.
Perhaps more than any other job in the world, you do not want the President of the United States to live in a frictionless state of posting. The Presidency is not meant to be a frictionless position, and the United States government is not a frictionless entity, much to the chagrin of many who have tried to change it. Prior to this administration, decisions were closely scrutinized for, at the very least, legality, along with the impact on diplomacy, general norms, and basic grammar. This kind of legal scrutiny and due diligence is also a kind of friction--one that we now see has a lot of benefits.
In my early career, as the first Washington, D.C. employee for Facebook, I spent my days trying to get politicians to embrace this new media format. I created a new kind of job in Washington--an evangelist for the future of politics as expressed through social media--that Twitter soon emulated. In those days, the holy grail was the principal (a candidate, elected official, or other high-level government official) who wanted to use these new tools themselves. At the time, watching an elected official Facebook or Tweet on their phone was like looking into the future. I had no idea how right (or really how wrong) I would ultimately be.
I have often said, only half joking, that if you went back in time and told me a decade ago that the President of the United States would personally, himself, tweet multiple times a day, that I would be unable to fathom how that could be a bad thing. Twitter’s frictionless product experience is one that helped to foster the frictionless Presidency. Sure, Donald Trump was a unique user, and wielded the product in ways Twitter would have strongly preferred that he not. But did Trump use Twitter in any way other than the way it was designed? We’ll be living with the consequence of that product spec for a long, long time. We’ll need to figure out how to chart a course forward, with more diverse voices in product teams, with fewer products that profit off of hateful content, and with more antitrust and regulation.
But for now, farewell to the first and hopefully last frictionless President. May we never forget the real consequences of the design choices we’ve made. And may President Biden reintroduce the friction to the Presidency that we’ve all been craving.
Adam is the VP of Technology Policy at the Center for American Progress and CAP Action. His initial ending read “he’ll be tweeting through the tears during the inauguration” but in a true Margins fashion, we sent the piece late. Not his fault.