Times are interesting for the social web, and I think most people will have seen things deteriorating over the last few years. No matter your opinion of how things are going at Twitter, it's hard to ignore the idea that things are fracturing and the social web is changing. Facebook, it seems, has been on a slow and steady decline for the best part of a decade now. And, from the Reddit protests to the long series of mass departures from Twitter, from the unsteady rise of Mastodon to the appearance of numerous other Twitter-like alternatives, nobody quite knows where their particular bunch of people will end up – and where we should make our virtual home next.
But a new app is here, and I think it has a high chance of supplanting Twitter within the next few months. Whether or not it's an app that I want to use is a more complicated question.
My personal background
Followers will have noticed that my stance on social media has relaxed since the pandemic. Previously, I took a hard-line stance on it all: I found social media, and especially Twitter, deeply toxic and problematic, yet I also felt that I depended upon it professionally. I even wrote a book about this. But the pandemic lockdowns helped me to view social media in a more positive light.
Instagram, which had long been the social network I enjoyed the most and found the least 'grabby' for my attention, became where I spent most of my online time. It's also become the most important for me professionally, as editor of Sidetracked magazine. Right now, in 2023, most of my network is on Instagram. Although I have plenty of problems with Meta – and Mark Zuckerberg – I enjoy using Instagram and don't find it too obnoxious.
I deleted my Twitter account several months ago and haven't looked back. Why? Because, after Elon Musk took over, the website's fate became obvious to me (even if it wasn't to everyone else). A tech company that has alienated most of its advertising partners, isn't paying rent on its offices, isn't paying its cloud bills, has fired its entire comms department, and is continually beset by escalating glitches because it has fired most of its software engineers won't last long – with the best will in the world. And what goodwill it had amongst users is being squandered at an astounding rate.
What of Mastodon? Like many of the people who left Twitter in that first wave, I set up an account, and was initially enthusiastic. But I haven't used Mastodon much since April. The problem is that most of my network just isn't there, and while I've enjoyed interacting with the folks who follow me on Mastodon, they're mostly in peripheral niches. My timeline is mostly filled with film photography, creative writing, and other interesting sidelines.
On the one hand, this is fantastic! What a breath of fresh air compared to the ultra-on-brand vibe of Twitter. And, yes, it is far less shouty and confrontational. On the other hand, part of me will always view social media as something I feel obliged to do for work purposes. I find it difficult to make time for social media just to hang out with people and to read their posts. And Mastodon, for me, is never going to be a place where I can go to do work things, post about work stuff, interact with my professional network. It just isn't.
I understand that not everyone wants to use social media this way, and – honestly – part of me hates the fact that this is how I view it as well. But this is the truth: if I didn't need to stay visible on the internet in order to do my job, I would probably have erased myself from all social media years ago and enjoyed a simpler, calmer, quieter, happier life.
Threads is a new Twitter-like app based on Instagram and run by Meta. It launched yesterday and already has over 30 million users at the time of writing (edit: I checked again and now it's over 50 million). The Fediverse (including Mastodon), by contrast, currently has just over 12 million users, of which around 3.5 million are active. The comparison here, after a single day, could not be more stark.
Like many people, I was curious about Threads, and decided to download the app and set up an account on day one. I was far from certain if this was something I would end up using long term, but I decided to give it a go.
The onboarding process is very easy. If you already have an Instagram account, you can import your username, bio, profile picture, and even all of your followers in just a few taps (followers who don't yet have a Threads account will later pop up when and if they sign up themselves). Voila – within minutes you're probably already following hundreds of people, and all of those people will get a notification to say that you're now following them.
A lot of people are on Instagram, and this ready-made network means that, even discounting other factors, Threads will grow very quickly. Probably more quickly than any other social network ever has. I currently have 5,243 followers on Instagram and 424 followers on Threads after 24 hours. Anecdotally, I have seen a lot of the folk I interact with regularly popping up on Threads – even brands, magazines and organisations that never bothered with Mastodon. There is a sense of unstoppable momentum.
The app itself is pleasingly minimal, with a monochrome aesthetic that I appreciate. But the feature set strikes me as too barebones at the moment. Most obviously, the main timeline is algorithmic and does not always prioritise posts from the people you actually follow; there is a lot of recommended junk, and not all of it particularly relevant. I'd like to see filtering tools to give you the options of a) only seeing posts by people you follow, and b) filtering out reposts and quote posts.
I like the fact that quote posts exist. Mastodon doesn't have them, and interaction on there often feels just a bit clumsier as a result. I get that quote posting can be used as a subtle form of aggression or as a way of asserting dominance/ownership over an idea, but it's also a means of communication.
Notably, there are no hashtags and no content search on Threads. These feel like basic features that are bound to be implemented soon enough. The lack of a website version is also a pain point – currently you can only use it on a phone. Social media managers will also feel the lack of any scheduling tools.
So will it take off?
Currently, the vibe strikes me as friendly but a little chaotic as people work out what the etiquette is and how it all differs from other social networks. Is it appropriate to post photos, or should they stay on Instagram? Do we use it just like we used Twitter? Is it more like Facebook circa 2006? (Sidenote: I loved Facebook in 2006.) All these questions will work themselves out over time. It has the enthusiastic vibe of every young social network, and it's important to note that Twitter also felt like this in the early years, before the flamewars and political extremism and trolls and bots and excessive advertising (there is currently no advertising on Threads).
Like every other social network, the young and hopeful vibe will fade soon enough as the experience is degraded and diluted by feature creep, ads, and internet-brained people doing internet-brained things. It won't stay shiny and fresh and exciting for long.
I also have my concerns about the fact that this is run by Meta. Meta has a bad track record in terms of protecting user privacy, and I doubt that history will regard this platform as a force for good. It also turns out that you can't delete your Threads account without also deleting your Instagram account – a typically Meta-y thing for them to pull.
My opinion is that this will supplant Twitter, and probably more quickly than we think. I think the number of active users on Threads will exceed those on Twitter within a month or two. Maybe even less. Twitter is decaying rapidly, being eroded and attacked on multiple fronts even as it collapses from the inside thanks to the catastrophically stupid decisions of Elon Musk. There is not a single factor acting in Twitter's favour at this point.
Meanwhile, Threads is new and hopeful and untainted by all of Twitter's dirty baggage. People do, however, want a Twitter-like app. There is an obvious need for one.
Yesterday, Elon Musk tweeted 'It is infinitely preferable to be attacked by strangers on Twitter, than indulge in the false happiness of hide-the-pain Instagram'. He is deluding himself. People will choose the latter in their millions, and those remaining on Twitter will wake up one morning and suddenly realise that their network has gone elsewhere. Either that or some final cocktail of glitches and financial incompetence will wipe out the website for good. Will Twitter end in a whimper or a bang? I don't know, but it is going to end – that's almost certain at this point.
And what about me? Will I use Threads?
I'm unsure. It's too early for me to throw myself into it with enthusiasm just yet.
I hope and believe that it will avoid many of Twitter's more obvious pitfalls, but as I scroll through my Threads timeline this morning I can't shake the feeling that it still feels Twittery. Many people have jumped from Twitter to Threads and are carrying on with their business as usual. I'm not seeing flamewars or toxic behaviour, but I am seeing the same infinite-scrolling black hole of endless content that I always felt was fracturing my mind into a thousand distracted pieces, forming a barrier between my thoughts and my creativity. Making me just a bit less me with every scroll and tap. An insidious blank numbness of the soul that I've never felt when using Instagram, or at least not on anywhere near the same level. It feels like almost the exact opposite of sitting down with a good book and a cup of tea.
Maybe the world wants a Twitter-like platform, but maybe I don't. Or maybe it will be something that I'll keep at arm's length and use occasionally when I want or need to. Maybe I'll find myself irresistibly and problematically sucked into it, like I was with Twitter – and the cycle will begin again.
Maybe a person can travel as much as they like, but wherever they go, there they are.
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