The 2016 presidential election will be notable for more reasons than bad hair jokes. It will be the first time that Twitter will be able to process political donations directly from supporters to candidates, thanks to a widget created by Square.
You simply press the “contribute” button that appears in your feed, select the dollar amount, and then enter a few fields of personal information. Assuming you’re already signed up for Square’s Cash platform, the transaction is done.
As Twitter says on its blog: “This is the fastest, easiest way to make an online donation, and the most effective way for campaigns to execute tailored digital fundraising, in real time, on the platform where Americans are already talking about the 2016 election and the issues they are passionate about.” It’s like Barack Obama’s landmark Quick Donate platform from the 2012 election, living right in your Twitter stream.
The potential seems incredible. Consider the grassroots power of trending hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #OccupyWallStreet, cross-referenced by politician tweets that either go viral or are carefully promoted as sponsored tweets. It’s easy to imagine how smaller candidates could ride sentimental waves to score a quick buck and a few supporters–or how terribly wrong it could all go if a politician’s social media manager asks for money at the wrong time.
Of course, the other revolution at play is slightly more subtle. Social media, while it’s superb at collecting tiny moments of support from the crowd, has never been that great at collecting tiny bits of cash from the crowd. Square is solving that, first, by collecting money for politicians. But tomorrow, it’s easy to imagine nonprofits jumping onboard, or even some Vine star soliciting tips from their Twitter followers. Just who can ask for money from whom on Twitter will determine whether or not the social network begins to feel like the omnipresent ring of a Salvation Army bell outside a mall in December.
That’s Twitter’s design challenge, though. Square faces another. Its workflow makes it simple to select a donation amount, sure, but then it asks someone for all of their personal information (which is a legal mandate in political gifting, but also, the real gold for politicians who will use that contact information as scaffolding on which to build your relationship, to ask for more and more money over the course of the campaign, and potentially even lobby you to help campaign in fringe markets–that’s what Obama did).
Speaking from the experience of running a failed micro-donation platform, I can say that even though the button-press workflow looks so easy, as soon as casual Twitter givers are confronted with listing their real name and address? A lot of people are going to close out and give nothing at all–and it so happens that those people will be the most apathetic, the ones that politicians most want and need to enlist.
So while Twitter and Square seem charted toward an inevitable evolution of political gifting, capturing the immediacy of modern-day news trends, the overall impact may be a bit smaller than you’d expect.