Threading the needle
Meta’s Threads didn’t need to support decentralization to challenge Twitter’s flagging supremacy. So why does it?
Brennan Caldwell, Director, Engineering & Technology, Blokhaus Inc.
Threads, Meta’s answer to Twitter, has been out for less than a week, and it’s already become the most rapidly downloaded application in history, surpassing the record set six months ago by ChatGPT. The numbers speak to a strong appetite for an alternative to what’s become of Twitter, and Threads’ release seemed perfectly timed to take advantage of the chaos sewn by Elon Musk’s stewardship.
Meta, a social media juggernaut, could simply have released a glorified clone on its battle-tested servers to be competitive. However, the Threads team made a remarkable choice out of line with the philosophies of Big Tech as we’ve come to know them: they built their application on the ActivityPub protocol, and after a beta phase, they hold that they will support federation. Threads is, or at least promises to be, “decentralized.”
Decentralization in the social media space is not new. Mastodon, released in 2016, is likewise built on ActivityPub. It is a member of the “fediverse” – a “federated” ecosystem of servers that can communicate with one another following a particular set of rules. In other words, you do not necessarily need to create an account on Mastodon in order to connect with someone who has a Mastodon account: you can join another ActivityPub-compliant service or even run your own. Each server has its own rules, community guidelines, and moderators, so if you don’t like how things are being run or what content you’re disallowed from seeing, you can decamp to another server.
As Twitter under Elon Musk has trended toward concentration of power in order to generate new revenue streams–including his botched launch of Twitter Blue that sent his few remaining advertisers running for the hills – Mastodon saw an uptick in interest. Another alternative, Bluesky, backed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, has entered the fray, leveraging a divergent approach to decentralization, the AT Protocol.
Meta is taking a bet that the “censorship” debates that have besieged Twitter – and are, to some degree, the inspiration behind other decentralized apps – are fringe issues.
Despite the promise of these platforms, neither has gained significant traction among the general social media community. The added complexity of selecting a server – while a necessary tradeoff for this form of decentralization – can confuse Twitter-pilled users trying to join Mastodon. Bluesky, meanwhile, remains invite-only. Even after joining, many users point out that decentralization isn’t what compelled them to move: they merely sought a Twitter-like experience, undarkened by Musk’s shadow.
Threads offers just such an experience. Against Musk’s inconstancy, Meta represents an incumbent that, despite its dubious data privacy stance and track record on content moderation, is at least predictably dubious. Against Twitter’s now-frequent bugs, Threads leverages Instagram’s robust backend. Against rising hate speech, Meta is taking a bet that the “censorship” debates that have besieged Twitter – and are, to some degree, the inspiration behind other decentralized apps – are fringe issues; that most people just want a nice place to share their little thoughts.
Users who want to leave Threads can simply pick up their followers and move elsewhere. It’s a fascinating concession, by a titan of the industry, to proponents of decentralization.
And against Mastodon and Bluesky, Threads exploits its advantage in linking Instagram accounts, allowing users to join quickly and painlessly and immediately connect with their friends rather than starting from zero. All while being, potentially, open to federation. Got friends on Mastodon? Chat with them on Threads.
Why Meta, a company that hasn’t hesitated to take advantage of a captive customer base, is providing Threads users with what’s essentially an escape hatch is curious. As with other ActivityPub servers, users who want to leave Threads can simply pick up their followers and move elsewhere. It’s a fascinating concession, by a titan of the industry, to proponents of decentralization, a movement that evidence suggests is nascent at best and stagnant at worst.
Minutes before Threads hit app stores, Instagram head Adam Mosseri sat down with Kevin Roose and Casey Newton of the New York Times podcast Hard Fork. In the interview, Mosseri framed Threads as an extension of Instagram’s commitment to “creators.” It is not simply a microblog but a space in which, say, Instagram photographers can connect to chat about photography in a place where discourse isn’t subordinated to a comment section.
The theory is that, by giving people the ability to migrate to other services, Threads will attract creators who demand resiliency in their audience.
Decentralization, in Mosseri’s view, is a design philosophy in line with this mission. “I think it’s going to translate into not philosophical but meaningful things for creators in the long run,” he says. “Obviously, I don’t think a large percentage of creators are interested in this specifically decentralized technology today, but I think that more and more are, and they are definitely interested in things like owning their audience.”
The theory is that, by giving people the ability to migrate to other services, Threads will attract creators who demand resiliency in their audience, a message resonant with influencers who spent years building up Twitter followings. Why not use an app that lets you keep your followers and, as an added bonus, comes essentially prepopulated with your Instagram’s?
Perhaps. But Meta is also positioning itself to exploit the practical vulnerabilities of federation. Mastodon servers are run largely by people in their free time: these moderators assume the cost of running their services and the burden of content moderation without any compensation. It can be exhausting, and it’s not unheard of for hosts to choose to shut down their services, forcing users either to move or to face the deletion of their account data. In one fell swoop, Threads will enter the fediverse as the best-resourced and most fault-tolerant option available. Unless a user is particularly aligned with a boutique server’s values, why take the gamble? Meta’s eating Twitter’s lunch–might as well have some of Mastodon’s for dessert.
Hearing a representative of Meta speak of decentralization, long the rallying cry of the privacy-conscious and to-the-moon crypto enthusiasts, as the future of the industry is a major shift in tone.
Mosseri further states that his bet on decentralization is a long game. “I do think that decentralization but, more specifically and more broadly, more open systems are where the industry is getting pulled … I don’t think [decentralization] is going to move the needle on adoption in the short term but I do think it’s going to move the adoption in the long term.”
Hearing a representative of Meta–Big Tech incarnate–speak of decentralization, long the rallying cry of the privacy-conscious and to-the-moon crypto enthusiasts, as the future of the industry is a major shift in tone. When will Threads open to federation? “Soon,” we are told; though in truth, there is nothing in the ActivityPub spec that requires that servers connect with others. Threads could conceivably never federate, though this is unlikely given the work that went into building these capabilities. Perhaps Threads creators are simply hedging their bets. Build in the possibility for decentralization in case it does turn into a meaningful value prop – and turn it off if it sours.
A week in, there remain many open questions. How will Threads make money? Ads, likely, though these have yet to hit the feed. Will Threads spell the end of Twitter? Reports indicate Twitter’s traffic is tanking as Threads’ user base climbs.
Will Meta’s use of ActivityPub boost or hobble Mastodon? Will it lead social media into a new era of decentralization or, like a vampire, drain it of its vitality before it has a chance to truly thrive?
Threads stands at a crossroads between the crumbling centralized social media model of the tech boom and a proposed decentralized future. Whether Meta can thread the needle, whether it chooses to do so at all, remains to be seen.
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