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Thoughts on Threads
I don't know why.
They "trust me"
- 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg in correspondence with a Harvard friend after launching “The Facebook” (Business Insider)
Introduction to Threads
On Wednesday, Meta expanded its social media empire (which includes Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp) with the Instagram-based text app, Threads. Reportedly, Threads looks very similar to Twitter with a few minor adjustments –unsurprisingly, when considering Meta’s long tradition of copycatting competitors. Most of the time unsuccessfully, but with important exceptions like Stories and Reels which imitated distinctive features from Snapchat and TikTok.
The Guardian journalist, Kari Paul says that “using Threads felt like a fever dream in which Twitter and Instagram had a more usable brain child.”
Rebecca Jennings from Vox is a bit more skeptical and says that “Logging onto Threads is like logging on to the internet roughly a decade ago. I have now seen two strangers share their “hot take” that actually, pineapple on pizza is good, a sentiment copied and pasted from all the world’s most boring Hinge profiles.”
The explicit mission of Threads is to challenge Twitter’s position as the world’s conversation app. And so far, so good. By leveraging Instagram's +2 billion user base, Threads achieved the highest overnight growth of any web application, ever. Within 24 hours after its launch, Threads amassed 30 million users. Yesterday, Threads had 90 million users, and by the time you are reading this, the number likely exceeds 100 million. It took ChatGPT two months to achieve 100 million users, for TikTok it took nine months, and for Instagram, it took two and half years to achieve this milestone that Threads has achieved in less than a week.
Whether you like them or not, Meta is better positioned than anyone else to be the new dopamine provider for disgruntled Twitter users.
At this point, the Threads app is rolled out in more than 100 countries, but not any of them is in the EU zone. From a privacy perspective, Threads is a nightmare as it unnecessarily collects a lot of sensitive information from users such as health and financial data, precise location, browsing history, contacts, purchases, and search history. In addition, Meta is under heavy scrutiny by the European privacy powers and was recently faced with a monstrous fine of €1.2 billion from the European Data Protection Board (the largest fine in GDPR’s history) for importing data to the US about European Facebook users.
GDPR is not the only EU legislation Threads is at odds with. EU’s Digital Market Act set out strict boundaries for how tech monopolies referred to in the law as “gatekeepers” can process data about EU citizens across different platforms. For example, under Article 5 (2) (b) and (c), the gatekeeper is not allowed to:
“(b) combine personal data from the relevant core platform service with personal data from any further core platform services or from any other services provided by the gatekeeper (..)
(c) cross-use personal data from the relevant core platform service in other services provided separately by the gatekeeper (..)”
The restrictions make a lot of sense. To illustrate:
A user accepts data collection separately from Service A and Service B. Both services are offered by the same provider, and the user is aware of this fact. However, if the provider can combine and cross-use the data collection from Service A and Service B, the provider may be able to deduce highly sensitive information about the user which they could not have anticipated when they accepted the data collection from Service A and Service B individually.
For example, an Instagram user may share some photos from a vacation on Instagram. Shortly thereafter, the same user shares their thoughts about something on Threads. Meta’s AI systems may now be capable of interpreting the link between certain events the user is experiencing and simultaneously how these experiences shape the user’s thoughts and opinions.
Over time, the AI systems aggregate more and more data about what makes the user tick, and how their life circumstances shape their behavior and thoughts, and there is no way the user could have expected this by accepting the data terms of Service A and Service B. As a result, Meta becomes more powerful, the AIs become better at predicting user behavior and better at subtly manipulating the users with targeted advertising.
This is a frightening, nightmarish scenario, and I don’t think Meta’s intentions are quite as dark. To the contrary, a key point of Meta’s announcement was that the company is planning to make Threads compatible with the standard protocol ActivityPub which powers Mastodon. David Pierce from The Verge wrote an excellent deep dive on ActivityPub here.
By integrating ActivityPub, Threads users would be able to transfer their content away from Threads and interact with users on other platforms that support the technology. Importantly, the concerns surrounding compliance with the EU's Digital Market Act could be alleviated to some extent, since the users retain ownership of their data.
Right now, a more practical concern is that a user cannot deactivate their account on Threads without deleting their Instagram account as well. This effectively lock-in most users, once they are signed up - unless the users are willing to wipe out their digital memory books and hard-earned follower counts on Instagram.
The internet needs secure and trustworthy communication and information channels. Gathering the entire world’s population on a proprietary-owned common square is not the answer - despite what Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, or Twitter’s new CEO is trying to sell us.
Over time, the stream of information always – as a rule of nature - becomes corrupted by bad actors and bots as long as the platform’s key metric of success is for how long it can retain user attention. The revenue-seeking approach is beneficial for advertisers, but a negative-sum game for the social community on the platform. Cory Doctorow coined the term “enshitification” which encapsulates how tech platforms deteriorate over time as the companies’ priorities gradually shift away from the users towards the shareholders.
Additionally, social media algorithms are purposed to keep users engaged, and unfortunately, users are strongly engaged by content that enrages them or invokes other strong emotional reactions. In this way, the centralized social media platform accidentally rewards antisocial behavior. This is where basic game theory tells us that Moloch dictates and that the network becomes more and more unpleasant to participate in over time.
On this background, I can only applaud Meta’s decision to integrate ActivityPub with Threads and I hope that they follow through. I believe that a “decentralized internet” consisting of “federated platforms” where social apps and social networks are completely separated is the future.
In the longer run, whether the time will be counted in years or decades, the social media landscape will likely be shaped in the spirit of ActivityPub, the AT protocol that powers BlueSky, and Nostr which supports Bitcoin micro-payments. In 75 years, I suspect we will look at today’s endorsement of centralized social media along the same lines as we now look at cigarette commercials from the 50s.