Ed Zitron 8 min read

The problem with making a new social network is that (as I’ve related before) you are only really selling a place. While you can stomp your feet and yell that you’re providing a service and that the value is the platform, the reality is that without an active, interesting, and engaged user base — without things happening on said network — you don’t really have any way to get people back on the platform. While you can send out annoying push notifications or use another very large app you own to push users toward your network, almost the entirety of its value is user-generated content.

This is the problem Meta’s Threads network currently faces, with daily active users dropping from 49 million on July 7th to 23.6 million on July 14th according to Similarweb, which also said that Threads users had gone from spending 21 minutes a day on the app to a remarkably low six minutes a week later.

This kind of third-party app analysis is a bit of a dark art, where methodologies and capabilities differ (and thus, the results), but it’s worth noting that SimilarWeb’s competitors have made similar observations. Sensor Tower reported that Threads’ average time spent has dropped from 20 minutes to 10 minutes a day).- For comparison, Twitter’s average total time spent was 25 minutes.

On an anecdotal level, Threads lacks any real reason for me to open the app, and I’ve yet to find anyone who I’d even classify as a fan. Bluesky, while a much smaller community (and I can’t find any data on “minutes spent” there), felt intentional. It slow-dripped invites out to Twitter’s power users, meaning that the initial experience felt lively and unique, and yet reassuringly familiar. Threads was constructed like Mark Zuckerberg was building a mall, cramming as many brands and influencers in as possible to give them a natural leg up on the platform, and then hoping having enough shiny objects would make the network worth visiting. It reminds me of Randygub’s Trump tweet where he waves a bible at a crowd and says “you morons love this shit huh” — a deeply-permeated contempt for the user and what the user enjoys. Zuckerberg and Mosseri have decided — as people that really do not use social networking — what keeps people on their sites, despite the fact that people are beginning to hate Instagram because of the changes they keep making.

And this is the ultimate problem facing social media today — those in power are not power users, do not understand the product they’re building, and continue to fuck it up as a result.

Twitter has only succeeded because its management team, on some level, realized early on that the core product — people tweeting and replying to each other — was something that had grown almost entirely without their influence, gaining a natural momentum that would wilt if it interfered with. The magic of Twitter was (and to some extent still is) that it is somewhat feral — the flow of information was predominantly based on the users’ choice of who to follow, reply to, or retweet.

Twitter always had some algorithmic stuff — the occasional recommended tweets, ads, trending tweets, what you’d see in Moments and so on — but the main feed grew successful because the things you saw and the things you did weren’t overtly interfered with. It’s a network that grew in strength through allowing the user to decide what was important, interesting, or noteworthy, with the exception of the verification system that, while flawed at the very least, let you know that someone was who they said they were. Twitter’s interventions were usually reserved for trying to control the negative aspects of such a free flow of information — bigotry, threats, misinformation and scams — constantly (and imperfectly) trying to maintain a balance between said information flow and those who might use it to their advantage.

This is why Twitter has been so surprisingly hard to kill. Musk may own the company, but he doesn’t actually own the product. Like any great capitalist enterprise, Twitter has entirely outsourced the fundamental product that you are buying — specifically, tweets — to the user base. This is the magic behind Twitter’s staying power, and why it’s remained relevant despite the existence of deep-pocketed competition (like Facebook and TikTok), or the emergence of rival microblogging platforms throughout its lifespan (Kevin Rose’s ill-fated Pownce, App.Net, the list goes on).

Twitter does not make tweets, besides the occasional company announcement. Its executive team (before Musk, at least) rarely tweets. Its users have mostly stuck around because the people and things they like are on there and, if they switch out of the “For You” tab, they aren’t forced to read things they hate from people they hate. This wasn’t always the case, but there was at least some feeling of a good faith attempt (a willingness to ban Nazis, to push back against hate speech and harassment) to generally try and make Twitter hospitable.

The problem that Musk has — and that many people seem to misunderstand — is that Twitter does not have “free speech” in the way that many conservatives seem to believe it exists. People have the “right” to post on Twitter, but there are rules that exist (or existed) to make it so that existing on Twitter doesn’t hurt another person or make their life worse.

“Freedom of speech” that allows you to yell slurs at or threaten people is not true freedom of speech. You are informally restricting the speech of others by intimidating them off the platform, and the noxious right wing talking point of “hearing both sides” and “allowing opinions” is mostly used to push some form of bigotry, oppression or outright misinformation.

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This is the exact problem that Threads wants to avoid — the messy and annoying challenge of actually having to maintain a social network. Mosseri and Zuckerberg want an anodyne, tranquilized social network, one where people are safe to post “I love to eat pizza!” and “imposter syndrome got me boppin’” in the safest possible environment. Threads is bubble-wrapped #content, built to be idly browsed and consumed like Instagram, safe from the challenges of hosting debates around hard news or politics, which fundamentally doesn’t work in a text-based medium. We go on these networks to act and react, to hear others’ thoughts and react to them, and enjoy their reactions, for better or for worse.

The soul of a text-based social network is that it has just a bit of banter. There must be a little bit of friction, much like real conversations, which in turn means that there will be disagreements, or negative feedback, or whatever else would happen if you said the thing out loud. This is what people like about Twitter — it is effectively standing in a room and yelling, albeit within the confines of a 280-character post. Its value is that more often than not someone will hear you and say something back, or share said yelling with their friends.

Threads, on the other hand, allows for 500 character posts and replies, meaning that comments are a mixture of Instagram-style “great stuff 💪” and “Hello From Serbia!” posts and paragraph-long diatribes about something tangentially related. These aren’t “replies” in the same way that Twitter has them — they’re comments, additions that are not in and of themselves considered important or unique. Every single reply-heavy Threads has the same joyless tenor of a newspaper’s comments section, filled with Boomers Typing Every Word With A Capital Letter.

In other words, Threads feel exactly the same as Facebook or Instagram — a lifeless dross that resembles push notifications from apps rather than any kind of conversation or insight into another person’s life. A chronological timeline does not fix the fundamental design choices that make replies feel so empty, the fact that you can’t share Threads outside of the network, and the fact that people are already bored. Threads have no culture — there are no events, no moments of happenstance, nothing that makes you go “damn I love this.”

Threads is the Kidz Bop of social networking — a saccharine facsimile of the real thing, but with all the naughty words covered over to protect younger ears (or, in this case, advertisers). While the melody and lyrics are familiar, anyone can tell they’re not listening to the original version, and it’s nobody’s first preference.

People do not come to Twitter just to see Adrian Wojnarowski say that a basketball player got traded — they go there to be part of a firehose of their friends, family and peers’ thoughts and feelings while that trade happens.

When something big happens, Twitter allows you to see what everybody’s saying about it. Threads allows you to see a jumbled out-of-order series of reactions interspersed with Gary Vaynerchuk vomiting out content that would be considered saccharine in an episode of Ted Lasso.

Twitter has become the world’s personally-configurable entertainment network — an onslaught of actions and reactions that were sometimes manufactured but oftentimes not, where the programming is dictated by subcultures and world events rather than algorithmic interference. Trying to recreate Twitter without actively encouraging a little bit of chaos is like selling non-alcoholic beer — there’s a market, but you aren’t outselling Miller Lite.

While I am not suggesting Threads will die, I am not sure how it grows and makes Meta money. The network is already a cluttered, lifeless, and algorithmically-driven sludge. Once Meta turns on advertising, it will undoubtedly become even more dominated by thirsty brands and influencers. When Meta begins to hyper-monetize, it will further twist the algorithm (as they have with Instagram) to waterboard you with sponsored content and outright advertising on a network that already feels utterly joyless.

Perhaps Meta can turn this into a billion-dollar company — something modest and inoffensive — but my belief is that Mark Zuckerberg is a fundamentally terrible CEO that has few good ideas and a complete disconnection to the rest of the world.

The sickly irony of both Twitter and Threads is that the two billionaires that control them haven’t really “used” the internet in anything approaching a normal manner for quite some time. They do not have the practical experience to make calls about their platforms, yet feel the constant need to poke, prod and interfere — in Musk’s case to prove he’s smart and cool, and in Zuckerberg’s to continue the eternal growth engine of Meta’s rot economy.

I believe that both could fail. Zuckerberg’s only interest is increasing Meta’s scale and revenue, meaning that he will gladly make Threads’ algorithm exactly as aggressive as it needs to be to juice advertising revenue before the bottom falls out of the industry entirely. Elon Musk is an arrogant dipshit with such an incredible lack of self awareness that I believe he is fully capable of keeping Twitter going by accident, and just as likely to accidentally change one thing on the platform that will destroy it forever.

In both Musk and Zuckerberg’s case, there is an overwhelming disdain for the average user. Neither executive feels any duty to any customer, or the sense that their choices may have wide-ranging effects on people. They care about their egos, their balance sheets and their ability to make people look at them, a vile echo of the exact kinds of people that have made money off of Musk’s capriciously-awarded creator payouts.

Our largest social networks are piloted by greedy shells of human beings, wretched kleptocrats that have stumbled into opulence and experienced no gratitude for their fortune. They don’t see running these companies as burdens that come with responsibility — they see them as vehicles for money and power, with full awareness that the very real consequences of their decision-making will never truly reach them.

They are both petty, arrogant little men playing with expensive and dangerous toys, and if there was any justice in the world, the pair of them would be destitute.

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