Facebook’s Twitter-killer is here, and it’s one big, algorithmic feed. Until trained, the algorithm will show you an inordinate amount brands, influencers, and low-effort question prompts from people with blue checks that you’ve never heard of. Even with a couple days of training, the drop-off in feed quality when it runs out of stuff from your followers is stark. No lists, no followers-only feed, no chronological feed. Yet even in its current state, not only do I think it will make more money than Twitter ever did, I think it will be a social good.
There’s a long list of suggestions people have made for what Threads needs to do to succeed, or opinions on why it won’t. There are a few popular opinions that I want to strongly, vehemently disagree with: (1) Threads needs to cater to journalism to kill Twitter or succeed, and (2) they need a default option for a chronological or followers-only feed. Not only do I disagree with this, I think that Threads’ success will depend on avoiding a news culture and staying algorithm-based.
Threads is Twitter designed in the TikTok era. One main feed, showing you what it thinks you want to see. It defaults to the most frivolous stuff imaginable. Brands, Kardashians, questions about your favorite kind of french fry. The user then influences the feed by telling the feed what it wants through follows, likes, shares, etc. The goal is that the feed will eventually be very good at knowing exactly what you want to see and become a fully engrossing experience. Twitter wishes it could have started this way, as shown by its “For You” tab and attempts to add algorithmic content into the default feed. But the weight of history and habit prevented it from switching entirely. This is what advertisers have wanted all along.
“Threads will be full of cringe and it won’t be as useful for news.” Don’t threaten Meta with a good time. See, e.g., “TikTok is Cringey and That’s Fine,” Taylor Lorenz’ 2018 piece for before every social media company tried to emulate TikTok. The vast, vast majority of the world likes normal, cringey stuff. They can see a question about what their favorite french fry is and have fun reading or answering without worrying about whether it’s lame or cringe to do so. Imagine! Twitter would love to be cringey. Instead, it’s a harsh, often depressing place for news and politics that is used by far, far fewer people than Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. There’s a reason Meta is worth 20x even the inflated price Musk paid for Twitter. Threads is not for us, and that’s perfectly OK with Meta.
That said, I would not be so sure that authors, journalists and others who like the Twitter functionality and culture will avoid the platform because the content is fed algorithmically and trends lame. Creators want to have their works perceived. Journalists and authors want their writing read. If there is a humongous audience, the content will follow. We’ve seen this with YouTube creators making content for TikTok and Reels.
I want to be clear–I want my Twitter-like to at least have the option for lists, and followers-only and chronological feeds. I care about having someone I trust doing moderation. I will stop eating lunch to read a mutli-toot thread by law professor Sarah Burstein about Schedule A utility patent litigation. But I’m an uber-nerd. Those of us who value digital independence enough to deal with the friction of an independent operation and want educational/newsy/clever content are dwarfed by those who have other priorities in their lives and other tastes.
Luckily, people who don’t want to hand over all their data to Zuck will still be able to reach those people thanks to Threads embracing ActivityPub. This is still just a promise, but theoretically sometime soon, Threads users will be able to interact with users on Mastodon, and vice versa. Mastodon users will be able to take in Threads content without the algorithm, chronologically, with lists, however they want. I’m sure Meta will keep some of its features off of the ActivityPub protocol to incentivize people to stay on Threads. But the option will be there–and to me, it’s strictly a good thing. I certainly plan to have my feet in both worlds, mixing the real with the frivolous.
But the main reason I think its success will be a social good is simply that this really is the best way for Twitter to die. There were a million issues with Twitter driving political extremism, harassment, etc. even before Musk took over. Now it can die by being replaced with a “lamer” successor, but where you do not have to join that successor to participate with the people in it. The benefits of a federated vs. massive community I’m sure can be debated (along with handing even more power to Zuckerberg). But I think most can agree that if you had to choose between Musk and Zuckerberg, it’s barely a choice at all.
Coda: An illustrative example of the Threads algorithm at work. I have seen exactly one NFT-based post. But that post was full of people talking about how it’s all they see. Is this not a good thing? You never have to hear about NFTs and NFT enthusiasts never have to hear complaints from you? I know I’d prefer it.