Trump: the tech transition

The presidential transition in the US has been mirrored by tech transition in the background, as social media accounts change hands. But not all went well…

I think it would be fair to call Friday’s presidential inauguration in the US “controversial”. However, I’m not here to talk politics, I’m here to talk tech, and one of the more interesting things about the transfer of power in Washington DC is that it’s the first major transfer of US power in the social media age. Back in 2008, when Barak Obama was inaugurated, Twitter was around (about 20 months old) and Facebook was a toddler, at three and a half years old. Neither had yet to have a really significant impact on politics.

That wouldn’t last. There’s a fascinating sequence in Nick Bilton’s Hatching Twitter, an account of the founding and development of Twitter, where Hillary Clinton’s colleagues when she was Secretary of State explain Twitter to her, as it has suddenly become a big issues, thanks to its use in the Arab Spring. Obama himself became an adept user of Twitter through his campaigns – and he hired some really smart digital people.

That’s all been taken to a new level in the last year, with President Trump using Twitter as a vehicle of direct communication with his base in a way people had predicted in the earliest days of social media, but which traditional marketing wisdom had cautioned against. Trump, never one to pay too much attention to the rules, has proved its power.

The Tech Transition

All of which means that, in amongst the chaos of the transition of one first family out of the White House as another enters, a technological transfer is in progress as well:

The Twitter handles officially switched over at 12:01 p.m., right after Trump was sworn in as president.

The accounts for Trump’s team start fresh. All of the tweets from the previous administration were removed and archived on a set of newly created accounts, including @POTUS44, @VP44 and @FLOTUS44.

If you’ve retweeted or embedded tweets from the Obama administration, those will all still be there, but with the new “44” addendum to the account name. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Tumblr accounts are going through similar transitions, with the the archived versions managed by the USA’s National Archives and Records Administration. At the time of writing, the White House Flickr account is empty, with eight years’ worth of Obama administration photos moved to a different account.

An untested transition

However, the Twitter hand-over was not as smooth as you might have hoped:

CEO Jack Dorsey apologized Saturday for inadvertently signing up about 560,000 users to follow accounts controlled by the Trump administration, including the @POTUS Twitter handle after it switched over to President Trump.

So, what happened?

He explained in a series of tweets that users who followed President Obama’s new handle — @POTUS44 — after noon on Friday were automatically set to follow the Trump-run @POTUS handle.

In addition, “some people who unfollowed @POTUS in the past were mistakenly marked to now follow @POTUS,” Dorsey said via Twitter. “This also affected other official Administration accounts like @VP, @WhiteHouse, and @PressSec.”

A small slip in a major process to move a handful of very highly followed account around – but one that highlights a deeper point. As social media and digital communications become a more and more important part of our public discourse, we need different strategies for archiving and preservation – after all, there’s no guarantee that any of these sites will last for ever. And posterity will not look favourably on is if we fail to preserve the digital debates of today.