The big launch that wasn’t | WORLD
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The big launch that wasn’t

The DeSantis Twitter crash highlights the limitations of social media

Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu, file

The big launch that wasn’t
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Ron DeSantis’ decision to announce his campaign for the presidency on a Twitter “Space” was, by all accounts, a technological flop. Listeners were forced to endure 20 minutes of glitches, false starts, hot mic chatter, and cool jazz waiting-room music before they eventually had to rejoin through a new link. Many were never able to log in successfully. This failure does not appear to have seriously harmed the DeSantis campaign. He was still able to break fundraising records. But it does shows us something important: Twitter is not ready for prime time.

DeSantis was trying something new with a Twitter launch. Combining forces with Elon Musk would demonstrate youth and creativity. It would appeal to the “extremely online” parts of the right-wing ecosystem. DeSantis may also have been signalling a sort of kinship with Tucker Carlson, the cable news host recently fired from Fox who has announced plans to begin a new program on Twitter.

But instead of riding the vibe to new huge gains, DeSantis’ Twitter crash shows the relative weakness of Twitter as a digital platform for concrete political action. At one point during the dysfunction, a rival Twitter Space was even created by a few well-known online influencers. It cruised to a lively and successfully discussion, often critical of DeSantis, all while the official DeSantis Space was still trying to reboot.

DeSantis’ Twitter troubles were blamed on overextended servers. But at its height, his Space on Twitter only had 300,000 users logged in at the same time. By comparison, YouTube has been able to livestream major events to millions of viewers. And that’s with video. Even during a downturn in viewing popularity, traditional cable news can also still boast stronger live numbers. Three hundred thousand would be a nice achievement for a more normal sort of celebrity Twitter Space. But for a major campaign announcement in U.S. presidential politics, that’s not really such a big number. It certainly shouldn’t be big enough to “break the internet.”

As important as Twitter is for media personalities and junkies, it’s still nowhere close to an actual “town hall.”

Of course, something like a Twitter Space was never really attempting to reach the absolute highest number of Americans. It is, by design, an elite platform. DeSantis wanted to reach a large but select audience. Campaign experts can decide if reaching a mostly young-adult, mostly male, unusually educated and online audience is worth it for DeSantis. It seems unlikely that this group will be the key to his success. But if he wanted to impress them, a sputtering false start followed by fairly predictable talking points certainly wasn’t the ticket.

But precisely because of its limited demographic, the Twitter Space shouldn’t be a campaign killer for DeSantis. He immediately pivoted to a traditional cable news interview and likely made a greater impact there on the overall American electoral market.

Did the vast majority of Americans who are not on Twitter even notice DeSantis’ launch? In even having to ask that question, we see Twitter’s lack of political muscle. As important as it is for media personalities and junkies, it’s still nowhere close to an actual “town hall.”

Indeed, Twitter comes out looking like the bigger loser in all of this. The technical side was a disaster, but the content was also a bit of a snoozer. Elon Musk’s purchase of the social media platform was premised on expanding free speech. This event was by its very nature partisan, and the speech seemed very controlled. It was an entirely safe environment, lacking the rambunctious populist nature of most social media encounters.

The DeSantis flop also serves as a warning to people like Tucker Carlson who hope that Twitter can become a significant competitor and alternative to outlets like FOX News. As of now, it doesn’t look terribly competitive.

And for those of us who regularly use Twitter? This event might just have a lesson for us. It illustrates the quick wins and quick losses that social media offers. The promises are big, but you can never be sure if they will pan out. Don’t fall for all the hype. Perhaps worst of all, moments that might seem so important turn out to be a passing fad. “They fly, forgotten, as a dream dies in the dawning day.” No, doubt, there will be more to this story.

Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Ind. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute. Steven is married and has three children.

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