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Karlin Lillington: Threads’ early success is little cause for cheer

That so many people are so willing to opt for more Meta says much about how ghastly Twitter has become

Gee thanks, Mark. You promised us the metaverse, the glorious, bleeding edge of our virtual reality future. Instead, you’ve given us ... Threads.

Somehow this seems exactly right for all the wrong Meta-tastic ways.

Imagine stepping on to the corporate bridge and ordering your hulking social media ship to change direction away from the two-dimensional platforms of today towards a captivating 3D immersive space inspired by the imaginations of some of the finest science fiction writers.

Imagine throwing around $100 billion in research and development at the concept. Imagine proclaiming to the world, during a massive press and publicity campaign, that this remake was so central that the entire company would be renamed Meta to reflect this mega-pivot. Imagine then losing a non-virtual, shareholder-frightening $13 billion on your metaverse in 2022 alone. Imagine the public humiliation of having to say maybe you got it wrong.


And then, imagine your new Big Idea being a carbon copy of Twitter.

Twitter! You’d think the last notion that would occur to a company forever under fire for facilitating the proliferation of hate speech, mis- and disinformation, and bullying would be to copycat a rival platform so notorious for all these same problems that its users routinely refer to it as “the hellsite”. And hallucinating that you — Meta! — would avoid those problems.

You’d think Meta, which has been laying off scads of employees and struggling with significant financial losses, would be in no hurry to launch its own version of a loss-making social media platform format that, in Twitter, has had a mere handful of profitable quarters since launching in 2006.

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You’d also think the last place the general public would want to go would be to yet another Meta-venture. Surely not a public that has watched Facebook/Meta executives face public hearings and political grilling, read the headlines, seen the corporate fines and campaigned (on Twitter, because social media irony has no limits) for people to close their Meta-owned Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp accounts.

But then came Threads, which more than 100 million people signed up for in under five days: phenomenal growth. Twitter is believed to have 237 million active users (according to company figures last year). It’s quite conceivable that Threads will surpass that number in months.

That so many people are so willing to opt for more Meta says much about how increasingly ghastly and extreme Twitter has become under Elon Musk’s haphazard stewardship, leaving exasperated Twitter users gasping for alternatives.

It also indicates that millions of people are willing to opt for a Facebook sibling if it means an easy-ish migration into a new community that is likely to have many of your friends and followers built right in. That’s because users need an existing Instagram account to open a Threads account, and Instagram has nearly two billion users.

Meta’s decision to have Instagram act as a pain-free user gateway was smart thinking for this reason, and also because Instagram has a younger user base (nearly 70 per cent are under 34, versus Facebook’s 45 per cent), plenty of high-profile figures and fewer negative connotations than Facebook, despite its own ongoing problematical issues — such as deleteriously affecting body image and mental health, points expressed by many teenage girls in Meta documents released by whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Whether those who join Threads remain, is a big question. So too is whether Threads, which has not (yet) launched in the European Union, can overcome obvious concerns that EU regulators will have with a new offering that gathers enormous amounts of data, raises the same US-EU data-transfer issues as Facebook and must conform to the stringent new Digital Services and Digital Markets Acts.

Perhaps non-data-gathering platforms like Mastodon will satisfy the non-commercial, ad-free option a growing number of people want

Could Threads represent the start of a broader social media metamorphosis? Perhaps people have grown tired of the idea of one huge social media “public square” and are ready to fragment — maybe by age, interests, or region. Perhaps a company like Meta will be willing to lose the more data-protective EU market as long as it can data-monetise other markets (for now). Perhaps EU citizens have tired of being afterthoughts to US-centric, US-focused platforms. Perhaps non-data-gathering platforms like Mastodon will satisfy the non-commercial, ad-free option a growing number of people want.

Washington Post writer Taylor Lorenz argues that the platform that actually matters now is TikTok (which brings its own worries). “[S]ocial media experts say TikTok reigns as the new global town square and has held that role for quite a while,” she writes.

More than half the Irish population uses TikTok, according to Statista, while just a fifth use Twitter. But I’m not sure these are equivalent public squares. In public debate and media coverage, tweets are referenced far more than TikToks.

None of these platforms is invulnerable, and none has a guaranteed future (remember MySpace?). Social media seems, to me, to be teetering on the edge of major change. What unknown platform format slouches towards us, waiting to be born? Please don’t tell me it’s the metaverse.