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Presidential Communication: The Tweeter in Chief

Thanks to our nation's "Tweeter in Chief," the social media site Twitter is receiving a great deal of attention.

But the intense interest in President Donald Trump's tweets, sent at all hours, has not resulted in significant growth in users of the platform.

Brendan O'Hallarn, who recently was appointed a lecturer in Old Dominion University's Department of Communication & Theatre Arts, said key barriers are limiting the platform's growth. But the passionate debate that Trump sparks with each tweet demonstrates the tremendous power that real-time social media interactions still wield, O'Hallarn said.

Last November, Twitter had about 320 million active users, defined as users who log into a Twitter account more than once a month. The latest tally of social media use shows that Twitter now has 328 million active monthly users. That represents growth of less than 3 percent, despite all the attention it has received through Trump.

By comparison, Facebook, the current king of the social media landscape, has more than 2 billion users. Instagram, the photo sharing site launched four years after Twitter, has jumped to about 700 million users.

There are many more Twitter accounts than active users. Millions of accounts are created and abandoned by people who find the site isn't to their liking.

"I own one of those dead accounts. The first time I tried Twitter, it didn't take. It's not a very intuitive platform," said O'Hallarn, who added Twitter is now his social media platform of choice.

Another challenge, as O'Hallarn sees it: "Users who like Twitter really like it."

Therefore, every time the platform changes, such as the decision in 2015 to stop automatically placing the most recent tweet of a user's followed accounts at the top of his or her feed, avid users have complained loudly.

"Even simple design tweaks make Twitter users freak out. We might be the worst client base in business," O'Hallarn said.

But those aesthetic changes to the platform pale in comparison to the other major threat to Twitter's lively real-time conversation. Even O'Hallarn, a self-described "fan," acknowledged: "Twitter can sure be a cesspool sometimes."

A condition known as the Online Disinhibition Effect, coined by psychologist John Suler, suggests that some factors cause online discussion to devolve into name-calling and bullying. They include the facts that users are anonymous and invisible, have conversations that aren't in real time and are all "equal" on the Internet.

"Donald Trump the Twitter enthusiast changed how presidents communicate, but the Twitter users who respond to his comments, and then debate with each other, have joined him in this brawling mentality," O'Hallarn said.

Ironically, when Twitter first became popular, it was hailed for its ability to break down barriers and promote thoughtful discussions because of the platform's portability, immediacy and brevity. News reports about 2011 protests in the Middle East, Spain and Iceland and North America's Occupy movement suggested social media was helping pro-democratic causes.

O'Hallarn believes Twitter can still reach its ideal goals. His dissertation, completed in 2016, proposed a model for how Twitter and hashtags can combine to create thoughtful discussions in the field of sports - a very popular topic on the social media site.

"The individual tweets on a polarizing subject can make anyone depressed about the state of society," O'Hallarn said. "But if you look carefully, you can still see many people using Twitter the way it was intended - as their personal platform to change the world.

"Now the key is to get the rest of us users to stop yelling at each other, and use Twitter for good."

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