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Swapping a Twitter Habit for a Threads One
August 2, 2023

Swapping a Twitter Habit for a Threads One

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Threads Is Already Running Out of Steam, Meta’s new social network is already leaning into addiction., Threads vs. Twitter: The new Meta app is already leaning into addiction.

Last week, as Twitter struggled to contain the multipronged fallout from its sudden rebrand as X, its competitor from down the San Francisco Peninsula tried to twist the knife. Meta announced that it would give users of its three-week-old Twitter clone, Threads, more of what they wanted: an updated, viewable list of posts that they’ve liked; automatic translation of all posts into a user’s preferred language; and, most importantly, a feed consisting of just the accounts you follow, instead of merely a recommendation-heavy, A.I.–sorted TikTok-style For You feed.

Threads is not a Twitter killer, at least not yet. Use of the app has dropped by more than half from its peak, the celebrities who got there early are posting less frequently than they used to, and the platform is so far focusing away from the sorts of consequential real-time-business-service interactions that made Twitter what it was. Such developments have led industry analysts to opine that Threads—like other Twitter alternatives Mastodon, Bluesky, Spill, and Substack Notes—isn’t ready to take Twitter’s seat in the digital media ecosystem. But looked at one way, the new platform appears to be giving users what they crave at a moment that X’s M.O. is to take those things away or charge extra for them.

Consider the real nature of the new ‘Following’-only feed. Reporters at the Verge discovered last week that when users browse the app’s newest additions, ‘Threads will occasionally rehide the Following feed and bring you back to the For You feed after you open the app.’ Users have to put in active effort to keep themselves out of the recommendation-happy default settings, no matter how much they may express their displeasure with this lower-grade, text-based TikTok rip-off. Power users will probably do the work, if they care to. Normals may not.

Threads’ centering of a For You feed doesn’t mark the first time Meta has appropriated another social app’s innovations and even branding for itself—Snapchat’s ‘stories’ for Instagram, Twitter’s hashtags and blue checks for Facebook—but it is one of the more telling instances. Company executives have consistently, directly raised alarm over Facebook’s lack of Gen Z users, and the business dangers of TikTok’s overwhelming capture of that demographic. As the Washington Post reported last year, Meta’s gone so far as to pay a GOP consulting firm to turn the public against TikTok by promoting media stories that warn of the app’s potential harms to young users, including toxic image distribution and Chinese data surveillance. (Pretty eyebrow-raising stuff, when you consider Facebook’s yearslong awareness of Instagram’s horrific effects on teen mental health, as well as CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s own checkered history with China appeasement, but the game is the game, I suppose.) Yet here we are, with Meta once again foisting a TikTok-style feed to many users’ vocal chagrin, in the vein of Instagram’s money-driven insistence upon prioritizing short-form-video ‘Reels‘ (many of which are just reuploaded TikToks) over the images and creations its core users valued. Users’ revealed preferences, gauged from the close tracking of their browsing activity, once again trumped their stated preferences.

Meta copying features of a megapopular app that it’s actively trying to get banned from United States—the largest and second-largest market for TikTok and Facebook, respectively—may strike some as simple hypocrisy or business ruthlessness. But it’s likely something else altogether, a recognition from Meta executives that the best strategy to keep Threads competitive is to embrace the key element that positioned Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter (long before X) to become some of the world’s most powerful websites: the addiction factor.

If Facebook understands one thing about its still-unbeaten pedestal as the world’s largest, most influential, and most profitable social network, it’s that the company didn’t get there by asking nicely for its users to come back and try things out. Nope—it compelled them back, drawing on user data and usage patterns to deliberately restructure itself to serve only what maximized engagement, time spent, and targeted-ad visibility. In September 2020, Facebook’s first-ever monetization director testified to Congress that the company ‘sought to mine as much attention as humanly possible … working to make our offering addictive at the outset.’ In the months following this statement, Facebook took an action that seemed as apt an example of this as any. After surveying users in October to determine what kinds of posts they perceived as ‘good for the world’ or ‘bad for the world,’ and implementing an algorithm that suppressed the reach of ‘bad’ posts (which often included racist and antisemitic statements), Facebook would subsequently tweak that same algorithm to be less effective—because it turned out that downranking ‘bad’ content also made users less likely to open Facebook as often, or to spend as much time on it. (Incidentally, a couple dozen civil rights groups have already criticized Threads for allowing ‘bigoted slurs, election denial, COVID-19 conspiracies, targeted harassment of and denial of trans individuals’ existence, misogyny, and more’ to spread freely.)

Facebook has the eerie ability to pinpoint very, very specifically what type of recommended posts keep their customers coming back, thanks to years of user-data analysis and algorithm training. Yes, last year the app’s user numbers shrank for the first time ever, but Facebook still has more than 2 billion daily active users, and Meta as a whole is doing more than OK moneywise. That doesn’t mean Facebook will play emperor forever, especially as youth favorability keeps slipping away, but it does mean Meta has a tried, true, intractable record of keeping mind-boggling numbers of people hooked on its products. And the actions it’s taking now demonstrate that it’ll continue this course in crafting a Twitter/X successor—one that not only attracts and retains dedicated users in the ways the onetime bird app used to, but also supplements that Twitter-like candy with TikTok- and Instagram- and Facebook-style goodies. (It’s not for nothing that other, purportedly healthier chronological-feed communities, like Bluesky and Mammoth, are adding options for more personalized, automated feeds.)

The core difference between Threads and fellow Twitter wannabes like Mastodon isn’t just that the former hails from a Big Tech crown jewel while the latter are small, decentralized upstarts. It’s that Threads is pursuing an entirely different goal. The types of server-based, invite-gated, self-regulated, not-for-profit networks putting themselves forward as Twitter alternatives don’t have advertising, depend on generous fundraising, and keep their distance from the algorithm-centric timelines that characterize Facebook, Instagram, and of course Twitter. Opening and using these apps should be like accessing any regular website you enjoy: You go there because you like the experience and the community, not because you’re hard-wired to feed your brain those infinite scrolls. It’s a place to hang out because you cherish the content and company—maybe, if you will, a type of online neighborhood bar where everybody knows your (user)name. Nothing pushed in your face as being ‘For You,’ no probing into your browsing and interests so some corporation can sell you an offer you can’t refuse, just vibes.

Adam Mosseri, Meta’s head of Instagram and Threads, wrote a Thread stating that the goal of Threads is ‘to create a public square for communities on Instagram that never really embraced Twitter and for communities on Twitter (and other platforms) that are interested in a less angry place for conversations, but not all of Twitter.’ On one hand, sure, that sounds pretty similar to Mastodon’s and Bluesky’s goals, and Meta has stated that it wishes to make Threads compatible with the types of decentralized networks that underlie both. But there are blaring signs that Threads surely plans on scrapping any common-good public-square mission and pursuing instead what’s always worked for its parent company: algorithmic compulsion and engagement maximization. For one, if the Threads app’s own disclosures are any indication, it’ll keep gobbling up that delicious data. Two, Threads is explicitly a linked byproduct of Instagram, which, remember, runs on addictive algorithms. Three, Meta makes a ton of money across all its properties, and much of that revenue comes from advertisers. What do those advertisers like? Why, user interest data, engagement metrics, and opportunities for extra visibility. Threads’ double-down on the For You feed makes clear it’ll keep itself open for such business. Oh, and also, Zuck has explicitly told his investors that he’s aiming to make Threads a billion-user app. That means firing up the Facebook growth machine.

It’s possible Meta’s strategy here won’t forever be so reliable. An ironic result of its anti-TikTok push—which has helped to escalate popular and political scrutiny of all aspects of the app, from its Chinese parent company to its data-storage practices—is that U.S. lawmakers, whether local or federal, Democratic or Republican, are freshly motivated to impose social media regulations, after years of dallying or chest-thumping. Downstream of the anti-China fervor driving the TikTok crackdown, multiple states have passed laws intended to restrict teenage use of social media platforms and give parents more oversight of their children’s activity. On Thursday, a bipartisan congressional group, with President Joe Biden’s blessing, sent to the Senate floor the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill that grants states the power to hold platforms legally accountable for promoting content they deem harmful for young users. (This legislation has become controversial in large part because it frames encryption as a legal red flag, and because conservative leaders like the Heritage Foundation have already declared their intention to weaponize KOSA to censor posts with LGBTQ+ themes.) Another bill soon to be taken up: the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which would set a national minimum age for social media use at 13, require age verification and parental consent for all users under 18, and prevent social media platforms from collecting data on minors’ accounts and targeting them with algorithmic recommendations. Suffice it to say, there are some slight disincentives in the queue for the data- and recommendation-fueled models in Meta’s core business, not least when it comes to the younger users it’d ideally like to lure back and keep around.

Still, there’s enough room, and time, for Threads to refine its algorithms as needed without losing a competitive advantage. During a company town hall on Thursday, Meta’s chief product officer told employees it’s hoping to add more ‘retention-driving hooks‘ to Threads—for example, ‘making sure people who are on the Instagram app can see important Threads.’ Don’t call it a comeback.


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