On July 6, 2015, Matt Novak, editor of the Paleofuture blog at Gizmodo, tweeted: “hard to believe there's just 564 days until donald trump is sworn in as president of the united states.”
“Don’t. Even. Joke. It.,” someone replied.
hard to believe there's just 564 days until donald trump is sworn in as president of the united states— Matt Novak (@paleofuture) July 6, 2015
On July 7, 2015, Novak tweeted “hard to believe there's just 563 days until donald trump is sworn in as president of the united states.”
“is this going to be a thing?” someone replied.
It was indeed going to be a thing. Novak has kept this countdown thread going on his Twitter to this day, for a year and a half. (With a brief break, he says, when he became “depressed about the world” and didn’t feel like doing it, though he took it back up shortly thereafter.) It began as a joke, he says, but now it reads more like prophecy.
I spoke with Novak on the phone—he’s currently in Australia, where he’s trying to move—about his Twitter countdown, the reactions to it, and how it’s shaped how he thinks about the coming Trump presidency. A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
Julie Beck: I’d like to address first and foremost the question I assume is on everyone’s mind: Are you or are you not a dark wizard who, in repeatedly naming this reality, has summoned it into being?
Matt Novak: I hope not, I really hope not. I’m still in denial that Donald Trump is going to be our president. So I have no magical powers to see the future. It started as a joke and then it ebbed and flowed. Someone tweeted at me once that they've never seen the same collection of words change their meaning with every given day. One day it’s the funniest thing in the world—who could believe Trump is going to be president? The next it's terrifying that Trump is going to be president. Then there's some scandal and you think “Oh okay, well, he’s not going to be our president anymore.” And that was the past year and a half, I think, for most people. Denial, shock, disbelief. I'm still in the shock phase quite frankly.
Beck: Just so you know, I have an unverified dossier saying you are a dark wizard that I will be publishing regardless.
Novak: Fair enough.
Beck: So the very first tweet—walk me through that momentous occasion. What day was it? What happened that led you to press the tweet button?
Novak: I don’t know. I don’t remember. I do sort of absurdist stuff all the time on Twitter, just to amuse myself. I think it was July 2015. Honestly, that was so long ago. But there was a blog post that I did back in April 2015 that had a joke about President Trump in it.
Beck: That was before he announced his candidacy, right?
Novak: Yeah. He announced his candidacy on June 16. I started the [Twitter] jokes in early July 2015, a few weeks later. And some of those other things in the April post have come true in some strange fashion or another.
Okay, so to give you the context: April 2015, the Apple Watch comes out. Everyone is freaking out about it, they think “Oh, this is going to be amazing.”
Beck: People really thought it was going to be amazing?
Novak: Oh for sure. The tech press was just eating it up. So I did a satirical post about the year 2020, “Happy 5th Birthday, Apple Watch,” this over the top jokey post about what the future's going to look like, how everyone loves their Apple Watches and they changed the world and all this. And in there I put a President Trump, which was just the most absurd thing I could think of at the time. I said that he had put in labor secretary Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, who is notoriously bad on labor issues. I said that Elon Musk was the governor of the new state of New Canada, which had just been annexed. Of course Elon Musk has gone to Trump Tower to talk with Trump, and Kalanick is a big supporter of Trump. All the absurd things I put in this post are now coming true.
But the countdown tweets, I don't remember what got me started on it. I’m a huge fan of anti-comedy—I love just drilling a joke into the ground, something that’s not even that funny to begin with, and I just harp on it again and again and again. It’s also a great way to lose Twitter followers, which is also a goal. I don't like having too many Twitter followers.
Beck: From the beginning, did you schedule all the tweets out up to Inauguration Day, or did you wake up each morning, grab some coffee, crack your knuckles, and type the words out again?
Novak: They’re shade-grown, free-range tweets done every day. Custom. They're not scheduled at all. I am on Twitter every single day. It’s my news stream. I check it every day, so it's no hassle to put the dumb tweet in there.
Beck: So it’s been like a ritual for you every day?
Novak: Yeah for sure. There was a period there when I quit. I don’t know how long it was specifically, but after some of the Trump rallies started to get really violent, and Trump’s more fascist supporters were showing their teeth, I just gave up on it for a bit, because I was just really depressed about the world and didn't want to contribute to the negativity. But I started up again not that long after.
Beck: I don't want to say "engagement" but were there days when people liked and retweeted the tweets more? Did it track with news about Trump?
Novak: Multiple people have suggested that someone needs to do some analytics on it. But just anecdotally, people stopped retweeting and faving it once it became more real. People seemed to enjoy it more before he was the nominee, and then once he was the nominee it became not something to joke about. Which of course, I’m a fan of joking about horrible things. It wasn’t a joke anymore. It's not a joke anymore. But like I said, I’m still in denial. I still... I can’t believe that he’s going to be our president. And there’s good reason I’m talking to you from Australia.
Beck: You already mentioned that it kind of started as a joke that became real, but I imagine over the year and a half or so there's a lot of ups and downs in there. So what was the evolution of your relationship with them? Especially doing it every day, I kind of thought you just scheduled them out.
Novak: I don’t know. My relationship was very cut and paste with them. I didn't give it much thought. It was more interesting to see what the reactions were.
Beck: But did it sort of frame how you followed or thought about the candidacy at all? Or the transition?
Novak: In the way that people reacted to it, of course. People kept saying that I caused this—jokingly and half-jokingly saying that my stupid countdown was to blame for all this. But the other insight is, as someone said, I’ve never seen the same collection of words like that change meaning so dramatically day to day and I think that speaks to how odd this campaign cycle was. When it looked like Trump was dead in the water and there was actually no way he could win, people would take that day’s tweet as a hilarious joke. Then the next day, when he might surge in the polls people were shocked by it. Or at the very least worn down by it.
And then there was the occasional person, because of the sort of fractured nature of Twitter, there were people who thought I was a Trump supporter. People would see it retweeted somewhere, and then start taking me to task—“How dare you, how could you support Trump?” And it's like, these little snippets of nonsense that we send out into the world can be interpreted in different ways, you know?
Beck: Yeah, I've seen these tweets pop up on the ole timeline from time to time and it was kind of the same thing for me. It was originally a joke about the absurdity of his candidacy, and then it sort of became a possibility, and it was almost like dispatches from an alternate timeline, right? But then it became our timeline.
Novak: Ultimately the joke was going to be that once he dropped out, I would continue doing it. The payoff was going to be me continuing to do it long after he had dropped out, to serve as a reminder of just how absurd American politics can be. And it’s still true that American politics is absurd, we just happened to get a Trump presidency along with it.
Beck: Are you going to keep going into the negatives, or are you done?
Novak: Frankly, I have no idea. I don’t know what my last tweet on this thread is going to be. I don’t know. I could do the second inauguration… I don’t think I have the stamina or the desire to keep doing it.
Beck: So the final inaugural tweet will be from Australia, then.
Novak: Oh for sure. We came for the holidays. My wife’s family’s here, and I have plans to stay here, provided the Australian government lets me. I’m not optimistic about the next four years and how many people are going to suffer under this presidency.