Trump Dynamics – Lessons from Media Criticism

I’m greatly enjoying the current popularity media adoration phenomenon of the Trump presidential candidacy.

Many smart people have offered theses explaining his rise. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this story is that absolutely nobody predicted it. This highlights that everybody’s models are severely insufficient, and that’s very interesting.

I can’t go back in time and predict it, but I do have a very simple theory that explains all the data.

See, I have recently been co-running a movie/book criticism blog, and as a consequence I’ve learned a lot about how Media operates. For example, a sober and objective review of a new film might draw clicks from the demographic of people who are thinking about going to see that movie, and people who have seen it and want to know what other people think of it. This is potentially a large demographic – the entire moviegoing public theoretically falls in this demographic.

Yet this type of review sees relatively few clicks. The reasons for this are twofold: (1) there is too much competition. There are too many movie review blogs, and other sources of information, competing for the eyes of anybody looking for the scoop on any given movie. And (2), sober, objective reviews of popular movies are inherently non-viral. You may indeed find our blog and read a review; you may enjoy the review; it may influence your thinking on a movie. But you’re not going to Retweet it, or Like it. I know this because nobody Likes or Retweets our straightforward reviews of popular movies. There’s nothing in them that inherently makes you think, “Oh, people gotta see this.”

What type of content sees a lot of clicks?

My essay on Neal Stephenson (focusing on Seveneves but ranging over many of his works) is our most popular article. This is a long-winded and ranging essay where I throw out mildly controversial political thoughts and use the words “Libertarian” and “Reactionary” several times. This article was Retweeted beyond my capacity to easily track, and was linked by Vox Day and by Xenosystems.

By being mildly controversial in a way that certain subgroups found particularly relevant, I obtained mild virality.

Our second-most popular article is my review of Worm. I said nothing particularly controversial, but the Worm fandom is sizable and fanatical enough to read pretty much anything about Worm that comes along. So, what the Worm review has in common with the Seveneves review is not that it appeals to a wide demographic, but that it appeals specifically to a small demographic.

Trump is viral as hell. Self-consciously so. Everything he says is Retweetable. Maybe because it’s unbelievably dumb, or cartoonishly bombastic, or shockingly confrontational, or just embarrassingly gauche – whatever the case, it’s always interesting enough for a Like/Share/Retweet. (The same concept of virality applies in a different way to non-social forms of media. If you’re CNN, you have to cover Trump because (a) FOX is covering Trump and (b) because you can’t just not cover it when he says and does these unbelievable things.) And it doesn’t matter that his behavior makes him “not a serious candidate” if the virality he cultivates overwhelms the establishment desire to silence him.

The above paragraph is the crux of my thesis. Anything further would be adding spandrels.