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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONMediaJuly 9, 2023

Threads is a billionaire’s landgrab built on false hope

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Against my better instincts, I joined Meta’s new ‘Twitter-killer’. I soon realised my mistake.

For a while now, Twitter users have been nostalgia hunting, hoping that something would emerge to replace their decaying home platform, one now owned and occupied by a billionaire post-truther. Nothing so far has provided a potent enough hit; emergent successors have suffered from a lack of critical mass and been overly technical, too niche and exclusive. 

The hunt has also been on for a past era, a reclamation of a time when Twitter was all at once a game of both high and low stakes. A place where you could shitpost and be your most based self while also gaining influence and status. That era is now gone. I unscientifically pinpoint the beginning of the end not to Elon Musk’s acquisition in 2022, but to the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Before then, it felt as if we least had something resembling majority consensus on objective truth. Twitter was no tower of virtue, but general adherence to codified behaviour and less incentivisation of outrage meant the moral arc of the Twitter universe bent towards being able to justify spending time there. Then came Trump, and the guardrails were gone.

I finally gave up on Twitter in May last year, pre-Musk’s acquisition. The rot had not set into the platform as fully as it has now but there was rot nonetheless. It’s hard to express this properly without unironically using phrases like “Freudian death drive”  or suggesting some kind of metaphysical corrosion was taking place. I just knew it was feeding the worst parts of me, the parts driven by ego, parts that would never be sated. 

Threads (left) and Twitter (right).

Holding tightly to a truth like that, one that runs counter to a cultural hegemony, is lonely. You are winning a battle and losing a war every single day. Replacing the sugar hits and dopamine highs requires a monk-like commitment to long-term return. A diet of purist ideals is not a lot of fun.

It also breeds a kind of brittleness. To look around at the world today and believe you are above the desire for comfort and company is to be inhuman. To stand in judgement of others seeking that, held up only by your own rigidity, is to be cruelly dispassionate. For all the proclamations about the death of the monoculture, most of us still seek out collective experiences rooted in shared knowledge. Cultural phenomena like the clamour for tickets for Taylor Swift’s current tour and the embrace of the promotional hype for the upcoming Barbie movie are prime examples. Both are carried on the wings of a mass of people seeking comfort. 

The Elon Musk version of Twitter is a very different place. (Image: Tina Tiller)

What’s driving people away from Twitter isn’t just its owner calling the word “cis” a slur, or the assertion of the right to free speech in unfettered, often violent form, or the false authority conferred by the purchase of a blue check mark. There’s now little comfort to be found there. Twitter has always rewarded those with a quick wit and a definitive point of view but it’s become increasingly difficult to find consensus or swim safely in a lane without encountering extreme polarisation. There’s a psychic volatility to the platform that mimics its technical deterioration. It’s encumbered by a new approach to monetisation, unnecessary features, limitations and algorithmic diktats. No one feels sure of what they are going to get on any given day. The ground is slipping out from beneath users’ feet. 

Enter Threads, a platform assembled to fill the sinkhole being created as Twitter continues to collapse in on itself. It debuted on Thursday with a simple interface that is almost a direct clone of a version of Twitter that no longer exists but is frequently held up as its peak era. It feels distinctly unencumbered. Adam Mosseri, the Instagram CEO who is leading the Threads rollout, is making all the right reassuring noises about a list of user requests, responding in real-time on Threads as they roll in. Mark Zuckerberg has promised there will be no ads on the platform until it gets “on a clear path to 1 billion people”. I suspect it could get there. Threads has a seamless sign-up process that leverages your Instagram account, a platform that already has billions of users. If any social media company has the capacity to build out the features people feel they’re missing, it’s Meta. 

A preview of the Threads app. Photo: Apple App Store

I signed up on Thursday afternoon out of curiosity and, against my better judgement, in search of a little comfort. Once the smell of hope had dissipated on Thursday night and a lonely little itch had been scratched, I opened my eyes. After an hour or two, Threads started to look as if a lighting rig had come into shot on a Hollywood set. The integration with Instagram auto-filled the platform with ready-made users and Threads gained 30 million users in less than 24 hours which makes it the polar opposite of all the social media platforms over the last 20 years that took time to grow. The lack of organic growth makes the platform devoid of any organically grown culture. Instead, there’s artificial growth and insta-culture. 

Threads has also debuted with a top-down approach to who you see in your feed. Again, that is markedly different from the early days of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, where what you saw was based on who and what you chose to follow.  On Threads, you don’t see people you’ve chosen to follow, you see who Meta has decided you’ll see. Mosseri says that a follower-only feed is something that’s on the list to do. Still, there’s something ominous about starting with a feed that must, in some way, be driven by an algorithm. 

The simple and familiar interface also didn’t mask the mash-up of Instagram users and behaviour with those seeking a nostalgic Twitter-like experience. Instagram has given rise to a whole new genre of creators-cum-influencers-cum-brands-cum-cottage publishers. The aspirations of those people are markedly different to those of the Twitter user who often just wants to crack a few jokes, expand their network and share rapid-fire and politically-charged commentary.

Twitter isn’t for everyone. Over the years users have demonstrated a low tolerance for indulging earnest or commercial intent. Many of the brands that first took to Twitter left and headed to the gentler waters of Instagram where imagery is the primary mode of communication and the need for sharp text-based expression is deprioritised.

I experienced a kind of whiplash seeing people genuinely respond to brands who were asking the most inane questions and quipping about not knowing what they were doing on Threads. It took a while for me to click that they were in Instagram mode on a Twitter-like platform, while I had regressed to Twitter mode amid a sea of “inspo” posting that had previously existed in an Instagram silo. It might be true that people were lost on exactly what they were meant to be doing there but without the chance for platform culture to grow organically alongside a user base, it felt incredibly inauthentic.

We are now almost two decades into “the social media era”. We come with acquired baggage. Society at large bears plenty of wounds that have been inflicted on us by large social media companies who have deliberately engineered their platforms to serve their own aspirations of profit,  not ours. There’s no way Meta has made a Twitter clone solely for the good of humanity and there’s no way users won’t be made to suffer as pawns in whatever the game is here. The version of Twitter that Threads is mimicking no longer exists because that time no longer exists. Threads feels like an attempt by Meta to get us all to instantaneously forget that the last twenty years ever happened.

Enshittifcation is a term coined by Cory Doctorow. Doctorow’s theory of the enshittifcation of social media platforms goes like this: “First, they [the platforms] are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die.” Threads was born in part to exploit very real human needs. That feels like the very definition of a set-up established to be “good” to users. It has doubled down on nostalgia and not innovation. It’s an iteration of an existing model in a war between two billionaires. That demands it cycle through familiar steps and become a product that must pay its way. If users aren’t paying for a service, users themselves are what will be sold.

It’s awfully pious to judge people’s innocent enthusiasm for a new social media platform, no matter how irritated your nose gets by the smell of hope. But to not follow your nose and interrogate what it is people are looking for when they connect online and what’s being exploited by those offering a ready-baked solution soaked in nostalgia, is to be wilfully blind. Social media once promised so much. Threads isn’t looking to deliver on that. It’s just reheating a plate of comfort food in search of yet another payday.

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