Threads, Big Social, and the Promise of an Open World

Meta's Threads isn't a great experience now—but it presents an opportunity for a better internet.

Mark Zuckerberg launched Threads, his Twitter competitor, and the first few days’ experience is downright awful. Meta bootstrapped its new network with the Instagram graph, and it shows. Even if you follow a bunch of your friends—or other accounts you want to see content from—your feed will be full of the kinds of people who’ve found success on Instagram. And it turns out people skilled in selfies don’t have much interesting to say.

Threads is influencers, celebrities, and brands. I suppose there’s an audience for that, but it’s not the audience that sustained Twitter as a cultural engine. Perhaps Threads will get better as more people flee Twitter for it, and when it adds a “Following” feed limited to people you actually follow, but right now it feels like being trapped in the parking lot before an Ed Sheeran stadium concert, tailgating with the most boring people on the planet. Or maybe having a tent at a more functional Fyre Festival.

I suspect this is the experience Meta wants you to have. Their goal is scale. Twitter never really had that, which is why it never made anywhere near the money Facebook did. Twitter wasn’t relevant because it was huge, it was relevant because it was highly addictive to the kinds of people who influence the broader culture. Instagram influencers do that, too, of course, but not through writing carefully crafted 280 character (or 500 character, in Threads’ case) jokes, news updates, or intriguing thoughts others want to engage with. Zuckerberg might settle for Threads killing Musk’s already failing platform, but Meta wants to go big. And that means, sadly, influencers, celebrities, and brands.

The silver lining to the 70 million sign-ups in its first day and a half is federation. Threads is built on ActivityPub, the protocol that powers the Fediverse and, most notably, Mastodon. What this means in practice is that once federation launches on Threads (a feature disabled now, but promised by Meta leadership to come eventually), you’ll be able to follow people not on Threads itself, interact with them, and even take your entire Threads account and following to another server (“instance,” in Fediverse speak). In other words, Meta tells us Threads will someday be an open network. An open network means anyone can get the benefit of Threads’ user base and social graph without actually having to use Threads, or any other Meta product.

Whether Meta follows through on its promise to federate remains a question. Right now, their commitment reads like it’s one of principle, not business. They want to portray themselves as a good player in the internet ecosystem. But if Threads catches on, beyond its early weeks’ excitement, they’ll have little financial incentive to federate—especially if federation entails account portability. Meta’s other social products (Facebook and Instagram) turn a profit through advertising, which means gathering as much personal data about users as possible, so as to better target ads. Threads doesn’t have ads yet, but it will, and we already know the Threads app is hoovering up the same individualized info as Instagram. 

Genuine federation would mean not only that users wouldn’t need to use the Threads app to interact with people in the Threads network (thus depriving Meta of personal data and ad views), but that anyone could, at any time, take their whole following elsewhere. How much this would actually hurt Meta’s bottom line is unknown, but it’s probably not a huge hit. Just as most people used the Twitter app, even when ad-free options existed, most people will stick with Threads. If Meta thinks the goodwill it generates by federating outweighs the dollars lost to allowing people to use other Fediverse instances, it’ll move forward with it. But if it doesn’t view the calculus favorably, what business sense does it make to federate? It obviously doesn’t need the additional reach federation might give it.

On the other hand, if Threads peters out after this initial rush of excitement—if brands and celebrities decide to put their attention back into mostly Instagram, and journalists get skittish about Facebook’s history of screwing over journalism—then Meta won’t have any business case to deal with the additional development and support needs of federation. The Threads platform won’t be worth it.

Assuming they do follow through, the best approach to Threads is not to use it. If you’re already active on Mastodon, stay there, benefit from the lack of ads and privacy concerns, and let people who do want to experience the Fediverse via the Threads app follow you wherever your home instance is. If you don’t have an active Mastodon account, Threads is probably a better place to build a following now, pre-federation, but plan on switching off it at the first opportunity. You’ll still get access to its huge network, but in an ad-free, privacy respecting, and more helpful and pleasant interface. In a sense, this mirrors Twitter power users heading for the greener pastures of TweetDeck. (Before Musk killed TweetDeck, that is.)

There’s a political angle to taking this approach, as well. The big three social media billionaires—Zuckerberg, Musk, Dorsey—are all pretty bad people. Musk has clear white supremacist and social reactionary preferences, Zuckerberg has a history of his platforms enabling genocide and just not caring about it, and Dorsey has gone down a wellness to conspiratorial brainworms to RFK Jr. support rabbit hole. The world is not better for having our largest communications platforms shaped by the interests of men like this. There was a time, of course, before the rise of modern social media, when internet communication happened on open, and often open-source, networks. Blogs on Blogger could talk, via RSS and Pingback/Trackback, to blogs on Wordpress, or to myriad smaller blogging setups, hosted and self-hosted. Email interacts no matter one’s email server. Links let you move from one website to another across the uncontrolled network of TCP/IP. 

The ActivityPub protocol powering Mastodon, like the AT Protocol powering Bluesky, are attempts to get us back to this decentralized world. And if we can get back to that, our networks will be freer, more robust, and more inclusive than they can ever be on large, centralized, corporate, ad-driven platforms. 

A positive knock-on effect would be undoing the illusion of everyone existing in the same space. As I’ve argued elsewhere, centralized social media tricks us into believing our small communities are representative of the culture as a whole, and that our immediate circles reflect a broader shared consensus. This illusion does bad things to our discourse and politics.

All of this is ultimately a long way of saying that social media’s unsettled state presents opportunities, but if the collapse of Twitter results in everyone just moving to basically Facebook, we’ll have missed a real opportunity to drag the internet, and digital communications, toward something healthier and culturally beneficial. Years back, most people’s online experience came through centralized platforms like America Online and Compuserve. But they didn’t stick around and were, for a time, replaced with the open web, email, IRC, and blogging. This made for a better internet, but in the convenience of VC-backed, corporate controlled social media, we forgot that, and forgot what it’s like to not live in a world of walled gardens. Threads thus presents both promise and peril. If it federates, if it makes itself open, this could be what turns us again toward that better—but forgotten—way. If it doesn’t, we’ll be making the same mistake all over again.

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