"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Donald Trump, Social Media, And Crowdsourcing–The Traditional Media Are History

Much has been made of Donald Trump’s use of the social media, especially Twitter, to communicate with the American public.  The new President gets social media like a teenager - its immediacy, spontaneity, and viral appeal.

Trump also understands the nature of the traditional media – in a tailspin because of the transformative challenges of live streaming, interactivity, and the millions of individualized Internet sites providing every possible take and spin on current events; and unable to play catch-up.  Their fortunes in decline, and the demand for anchored, reasonable, and boring news broadcasts headed for zero, they founder in hype, gotcha journalism, and celebrity. 

Of course yellow journalism is nothing new.  A hundred years ago newspapers published the most scurrilous, unfounded, and outrageous stories about everyone, especially politicians.  Editors knew temperate, thoughtful, reasonable journalism did not sell newspapers.

Image result for images yellow journalism early 20th century

When newspaper editors found that unusual, remarkable, and surprising stories of real life were not enough to satisfy readers’ demand for the truly grotesque and twisted, the era of the tabloid was born.


Of course The Grey Lady, the venerable New York Times, insisted on reporting the news in an objective, sensible, and matter-of-fact way; but most Americans liked their news hot, weird, and fantastical.  Long-form journalism is dead.  The issue-long, detailed, and interminably boring features on music by Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker are things of the past. 

Twenty years ago Tina Brown revolutionized the magazine and gave it zip, allure, and curb appeal.  Although traditional critics lamented the demise of one of serious journalism’s icons, Brown was having none of it.  A journalistic corner had been turned.

Donald Trump has finally sent the New York Times packing.  While the paper will not shutter the shop anytime soon – the AARP generation is still loyal and tied to print – fewer and fewer people read it front-to-back as they did in the old days. Online browsing is image-driven and quick.  Site visitors have two or three windows open simultaneously and flip among them for the most personally relevant, topical, and emotive stories.  No matter how kicky and hip the New Yorker may try to be, it can never match the twisted outtakes in cyberland.

The online Daily Mail – electric reincarnation of the The Daily Enquirer, both leading with deformity and the grotesque - had 77 million daily unique users in 2011 and has an estimated 200 million today.  The New York times by comparison has only 70 million with lower projections over the next five years.

The Daily Mail is tame by comparison to the independent sites on the Internet.  Every possible point of view, perversion, twisted preference, and political screed can be found within a few clicks.

Current events, such as a Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton story, quickly go viral and are filtered, edited, and distorted in a million different ways.   Who would read the Grey Lady or even the juiced-up New Yorker when this Internet array is available at a touch?

This, of course, is why the traditional media, political pundits, and academics are in a twit.  They are being benched, taken out of the game just when it is becoming interesting, and sidelined.  Fewer and fewer people are paying attention to them anymore.  They are supernumeraries.

What is worse for ‘experts’ is the phenomenon of big data and crowdsourcing.  A million bettors in an online market will always estimate the number of gum balls in a jar more precisely than any geometrician.  Betting markets on Presidential elections 100 years ago always predicted electoral outcomes far more accurately than pundits.  Nate Silver, today’s big data genius-in-residence has never been wrong; and Ladbrokes (popular off-track betting site in the UK) is almost always right.

Image result for images betting odds ladbrokes

Big data solutions are becoming more and more an option for the likes of Google who rather than relying on in-house geeks goes viral and asks for new algorithmic ideas for better search engines from whomever is interested.  The results are always promising, innovative, and surprisingly feasible.
In other words Donald Trump is on to something.  Mediated news and analysis are things of the past.  The genie is out of the bottle, and crowd intelligence is marginalizing priests, pundits, and inside-the-Beltway know-it-alls.  The Internet has not only obviated the need for ‘objective’ mediation; it reflects the way Americans think.

The American presidential campaign of 2016 was like no other.  Thanks to Donald Trump who, with his outrageousness, Hollywood glitz and glamour, three-ring circus and side show, bare-knuckled, take-on-all-comers brawls, one-line zingers, Las Vegas glitz and Rat Pack showmanship, big ego, big image, and hot salesmanship, we are finally perfectly attuned to a presidential candidate. 

Image result for images donald trump with beauty queens

Liberals, progressives, and socialists who for decades have been trying to re-form America into a European, international, Utopian model of cooperation, multi-cultural harmony, and rational discourse and reasoned conclusion have been blindsided by Donald Trump and bewildered by the passionate support of his followers.  How could tens of millions people be so bamboozled by such a huckster and vaudevillian?  How could they be so taken in by a man with no plan, no political coherence, and no experience with governance or leadership?

Trump’s followers, say the Left, must be more hopelessly ignorant than they had thought, more intransigently backward and unmoved by rational argument and the rightness of historical secularism.  They are hopelessly inbred with few faculties of judgment.  No matter how the Left may try, they refuse to budge and remain racist, homophobic regionalists.

Trump supporters, however, are the avant-garde, the first wave of the new facts–last, image-first, post-human generation weaned on the visceral, the personal, and the immediate.   They have understood that in this post-postmodern world not only do facts have relevance only within changing social context, but they no meaning at all within the broader world of virtuality.  Facts are subject to faulty memory, imperfect subjective perceptions, historical revisionism and  political hyperbole.  Facts are tools for the promotion of ideas, theories, and hypotheses, bent and twisted to fit them.  Facts are overrated.  Truth is fictional, derivative, and meaningless.

There is little doubt that the highly-respected, experienced, successful older men and women in the Trump Cabinet, will rein in the most outrageous tendencies of their President and will craft reasonable conservative solutions to current problems in foreign affairs, education, energy, finance, and the economy.  There is little doubt either than the Trump Administration will form important alliances with the Republican-run Congress and key legislation will make its way into law.

As importantly, however, Donald will still be Donald, playing the traditional media like a violin while reaching out to his millions of supporters on social media.  They elected him and they need to be sure that he is following their mandate.  Since they do not have the experience, education, or political savvy to parse complicated issues papers and policy statements, they only need to hear Jobs! The Wall! Putin! Obamacare! and will be satisfied and Trumps constituency will remain intact and passionate.

Cynical? Far from it. Donald Trump simply understands the dramatic reconfiguration of American society and the way its members think and communicate.  Trump’s populism is very much real; and not only for the political solidarity it expresses.  Populism means unmediated democracy.  Draining the Swamp, dethroning the princes of the media, lighting up the White House with glitz, glamour, and Hollywood-Las Vegas-NYC glitter and celebrity, and if not returning power to the people at least giving them their say.

We are in for a wild ride with many unknowns and ‘unknown unknowns’ as Donald Rumsfeld was fond of saying.  There is reason to be anxious – not because the Trump Administration will do something stupid like get us into war; but because his style of governance and communication, and his idea of propriety are completely foreign to Washington.


The first six months of the Trump presidency have been fun indeed.  The next six should be even better.

1 comment:

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