No, I have not signed up for Threads, Facebook’s1 would-be Twitter-killer, but I couldn’t resist the headline.

I am also not going to get all sanctimonious about Facebook sullying the purity of the Fediverse; if you want that, just open Mastodon. Not any particular post, it’ll find you, don’t worry. Big Social will do its thing, and Mastodon will do its thing, and we’ll see what happens.

No, what I want to do is just reflect briefly on this particular moment in social media.

Twitter became A Thing due to a very particular set of circumstances. It arrived in 2006, at roughly the same time as Facebook was opening up to the masses, without requiring a university email address. Twitter then grew almost by accident, at the same time as Facebook was flailing about wildly, trying to figure out what it actually wanted to be. Famously, many of what people today consider key features of Twitter — at-replies, hashtags, quote tweets, and even the term "tweet" itself — came from the user community, not from the company.

This was also a much emptier field. Instagram was only founded in 2010, and acquired by Facebook in 2012. LinkedIn also stumbled around trying to get the Activity Feed right, hiding it before reinstating it. Mastodon was first released in 2016, but I think it’s fair to call it a niche until fairly recently.

The lack of alternatives was part of what drove the attraction of early Twitter. Brands loved the simplicity of just being @brand; you didn’t even have to add "on Twitter", people got it. Even nano-influencers like me could get a decent following by joining the right conversations.

Bring Your Whole Self To Twitter

A big part of the attraction was the "bring your whole self" attitude: in contrast to more buttoned-down presentations elsewhere, Twitter was always more punk, with the same people having a professional conversation one moment, and sharing their musical preferences or political views the next. Twitter certainly helped me understand the struggles of marginalised groups more closely, or at least as closely as a white middle-class cis-het2 guy ever can.

This "woke" attitude seems to have enraged all sorts of people who absolutely deserved it. The problem for Twitter is that one of those terrible people was Elon Musk, who not only was a prolific Twitter user, but also had the money to just buy out the whole thing, gut it, and prop up its shambling corpse as some sort of success.

The ongoing gyrations at Twitter have prompted an exodus of users, and a consequent flowering of alternatives: renewed and more widespread interest in Mastodon, the launch of Bluesky by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (and if that endorsement isn’t enough to keep you away, I don’t know what to tell you), and now Threads.

Where Now?

My view is that none of these upstart services will become the One New Twitter. Twitter only had the weight it had because it was (for good and ill) the central town square where all sorts of different communities came together. With the square occupied by a honking blowhard and his unpleasant hangers-on, people have dispersed in a dozen different directions, and I very much doubt that any one of the outlet malls, basement speakeasies, gated communities, and squatted tenements where they gather now can accomodate everyone who misses what Twitter was.

The point of Twitter was precisely that it brought all of those different communities together — or rather, made it visible where they overlapped. Now, there is not the same scope for spontaneous work conversations on the various Twitter alternatives, because LinkedIn is already there. In the usual way of Microsoft, they have put in the work and got good — or at least, good enough for most people’s purposes. You can follow influential people in your field, so the feed is as interesting as you care to make it (no, it’s not just hustle-porn grifters). Those people have separate lives on Instagram, though, where they post about non-work stuff, with a social graph that only overlaps minimally with their LinkedIn connections.

Would-Be Twitter Replacements

So, my expectation is that Mastodon will continue to be a thing, but will remain a niche, with people who like tinkering with the mechanics of social networks (both the software that runs them and the policies that keep them operating), and various other communities who find their own congenial niches there. Me, I like Mastodon, but there is a distinct vibe of it being the sort of place where people who like to run Linux as a desktop OS would like to hang out. Hi, yes, it me: I did indeed start messing with Linux back in the 90s, when that took serious dedication. It also has a tang of old Usenet, something that I caught the tail end of and very much enjoyed while it lasted. Lurking on alt.sysadmin.recovery was definitely a formative experience, and Mastodon scratches the same itch.

Threads will have at least initial success, thanks to that built-in boost from anyone being able to join with their Instagram account — and crucially, their existing following. There is an inherent weirdness to Threads being tied to Instagram, of all Facebook’s properties. Instagram is fundamentally about images, while Threads is aiming to be a replacement for Twitter, which is fundamentally about text. Time will tell whether the benefit of a built-in massive user base outweigh that basic mismatch.

The long-term future of Threads is determined entirely by Facebook’s willingness to keep it going. Not many people seem to have noted that signing up for Threads is a one-way door: to delete your Threads account, you have to delete your whole Instagram account. This is a typical Facebook "We Own All Your Data"3 move, but also guarantees a baseline of "active" accounts that Facebook can point to when shopping Threads around to their actual customers — advertisers.

Bluesky? I think it’s missed its moment. It stayed private too long, and fell out of relevance. The team there got caught in a trap: the early adopters were Known Faces, and they quite liked the fact that Bluesky only had other people like them, with nobody shouting at the gates. Eventually, though, if you want to grow, you need to throw open those gates — and if you wait too long, there might be nobody outside waiting to come in any more.
I may be wrong, but that’s what it looks like right now, in July 2023.

🖼️ Photo by Talin Unruh on Unsplash.

  1. I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of calling them "Meta" — plus if they’re not embarrassed by the name yet, they will be pretty soon. 38 active users, $470 in revenue (not a typo, four hundred and seventy dollars). By the numbers, I think this may be the rightest I have ever been about anything. 

  2. Not a slur, don’t fall for the astro-turfing and engage with the latest "controversy" — and if you’re reading this in the future and have no idea what I’m talking about, thank your lucky stars and move on with your life. 

  3. We won’t get into the fact that Threads wasn’t even submitted for approval in the EU. The reason is generally assumed to be that its data retention policy is basically entirely antithetical to the GDPR. However, since it doesn’t really seem to differ significantly from Instagram’s policy, one does wonder whether Instagram would be approved under the GDPR if it were submitted today, rather than being grandfathered in as a fait accompli, with ever more egregious privacy violations salami-sliced in over the years by Facebook.