By Tom McHale
If you put your iPhone to the ground, you’ll hear distant war drums beating. On a quiet day, you might also catch hints of Silicon Valley boardroom debates. They know trouble is on the horizon, and I’ll bet some of that crypto money tech company bigwigs are wondering how the heck they’re going to respond.
Here’s some background on the shots about to be fired. For months (years, perhaps?), we’ve been hearing rumors former President Donald Trump was going to start his own social media company. We all know how much he embraced the benefits of being able to bypass the media filtermen and women. Love him or hate him, there’s no argument he leveraged the heck out of Twitter. But this isn’t about President Trump, at least not directly. If you’re a Trumper SuperFan, great. I’m happy for you. If you can’t stand him, great. I’m happy for you too. Both groups are embracing and giving some much-needed exercise to one of our most cherished natural rights — freedom of speech.
Never being one to avoid a brawl, he’s now moved past the innuendo and rumor stages. The formal announcement is public. Truth Social is coming soon. The website, TruthSocial.com, exists and is accepting early signups. You can put in a preorder on the iOS store for the Truth Social app, and it’ll download to your phone when it launches publicly.
As to the level of involvement of the former President, details are still unclear, but it really doesn’t matter. His value to the effort isn’t all about money. To understand the significance of this announcement, we need to explore what makes effective social media companies tick.
I spent over 20 years in the tech industry, and if I left with one major takeaway, it was this. Critical mass is everything. There’s a minimum amount of fissionable material required to make an atom bomb explode. Likewise, there’s always a “critical mass” of customers, users, or traffic required to make a social media platform sustainable over the long haul. We used to spend countless hours in conference rooms figuring out how to be number one or two in a given application or market space because those are the only ones that matter over time.
Today, you’ll see that the “rule of a couple” lives in action. If you categorize social media offerings by what niche they serve, you’ll find Facebook mostly in a category by itself. With something like 1.9 billion (with a “B”) daily users, I’d say they’ve reached not just critical mass but supercritical mass. In the quick and dirty arguments category, we have Twitter. With hundreds of millions of daily users, they’ve also got a viable bomb. Other niches were fought for and won by companies like TikTok and YouTube. You get the idea.
As sick as we all might be of the current crop of dominant tech tyrants, they’re here to stay, at least for a while, because none of the upstarts like MeWe, Clouthub, Parler, GETTR, Telegram, and Gab, promising a “free speech” platform have attained, nor will attain, the critical mass necessary to dethrone the Zuck and his ilk. Until now.
The potential game-changer Truth Social brings, if successful, is, quite frankly, the Donald. Any company can theoretically raise plenty of money. Any company can build a better, slicker tech interface. But those things are secondary. What matters is eyeballs and lots of them. And as we know, former President Trump can muster those in droves. I’ll bet Jack Dorsey would have given half his formidable beard to launch Twitter on day one with a built-in user base of 50 or 100 million.
So, Trump brings money, access to money, considerable marketing savvy, his fairly sharp offspring, connections, and his brand to the effort. That last item on the list is the key, as it translates directly to the audience and users.
But even if executed perfectly by the Truth Social team, there are still risks. Big ones. Without knowing what back-room conversations have already taken place, I see two mountains to climb.
First, the network has to have a big and powerful global platform on which to run. Parler learned the importance of this lesson the hard way. Contracted to run their system on the Amazon Web Services, they learned precisely how tech leaders might collude with each other against the competition. Their first network, the one that allowed them to grow by millions when Twitter and Facebook started purging conservatives, and even the President, was hosted by Amazon. Shockingly, the Bezos machine promptly turned them off with a day or so’s notice. For a social media company, that translates to out of business — instantly.
Truth Social has the benefit of seeing exactly how the tech titans can, and will, respond to a threat, so presumably, they’ll leave the gates on day one running on an infrastructure they control. Mountain number one? Surmountable.
The second challenge lies with Apple and Google. Anyone can put up a website and service — Gab.com is a classic example. What is not so easy is gaining seamless access to all those smartphones through an app. Again, as we saw with the willful destruction of Parler, Apple and Google are willing and able to deny access to their app stores. For the vast majority of potential users, that means web page access only to a new social network. That’s a major hurdle to overcome and probably a death knell in the long term.
The question is… will Apple and, to a lesser degree, Google have the fortitude to deny valuable app store real estate to Truth Social? It is interesting to see Truth Social already on the Apple store as a preorder option. One would think now would be the most painless time for Apple to flex its muscles and lock them out, but time will tell. Then again, maybe Trump and Tim Cook hashed out an agreement in some secret meeting.
Our role in this is simple. If you’re tired of the poor, monopolistic behavior demonstrated by the current crop of tech tyrants, hit ‘em where it counts. The more the user count scales tip towards a competitor, the more they’ll have to change their evil ways.
Tom McHale is the Director of Public Policy and Digital Media for the American Constitutional Rights Union. He is a magazine editor and writer by trade, having published thousands of articles and seven books, including The Practical Guide to the United States Constitution.