In the last few days, 90 million of us popped in to try on new Threads. We fumbled our way round the dressing rooms, looking for people we know and, unwittingly perhaps, brought new material to the table, ready to be cut and trimmed to fit as yet unknown forms.
This week’s launch reminded me of one of my fondest social media memories – 2010, ‘watching’ New Zealand’s football team compete in the World Cup. The visuals were on television but the collaborative live commentary via Twitter was the real winner. Threads won this week simply because people are tired, want to catch up and chat and don’t want the stresses and strains of argument and ego that have permanently stained the other outfits.
As Threads dangled from the servers we were momentarily captivated by the shy, exploratory tone we found there. Suddenly there was personal uncertainty regarding place and behaviour. It didn’t seem to be a showroom for the brash influencers with dollar-driven hacks and lavish travel budgets. It didn’t seem to be for the shouty people determined to drown out every voice but their own. And, almost miraculously – for the first 48 hours – it seemed that nobody was up in your face selling stuff. Old friends were found, new connections made – goodness me, for a moment or two it all looked marvellous. For an instant, like a cracked mirror catching the sunlight, we glimpsed a reflection of the past possibilities offered to us by social media. A place where we could meet, talk about anything and everything and find human connection of the ‘kind’ kind. But, as we bravely tried on the new outfit and enjoyed the cosier feel of this new space, behind the scenes technical tailors have been invisibly stitching our data into the fabric of the Meta ecosystem.
I spent some time reading the terms and conditions – after all, its only been a week or two since Black Mirror’s Joan is Awful – and they led me back to the Instagram terms. I’d not looked at these for ages (joined in 2011) and they served as a grim reminder of the daily data harvest the company reaps. The ‘free’ conversation on Threads is also the perfect training ground for new AI models and potentially a natural progression of the intent indicated in Meta’s blog posts on their LLaMA (Large Language Model Meta AI).Information is power and unfettered information is a training tapestry to be unravelled and upcycled ready for the next use.
So what does it mean for us? People are social, they want to be connected but they’re tired of the constant anger and conflict – there is room, and need, for a ‘safe space’.We’ve learnt nothing when it comes to handing over our data. Intent is everything – Meta is first and foremost a commercial organisation with a mastery of purple-purpose-prose and ‘value-speak’. As with old media, profits are the driver but, in the social environment, data is the currency and our identity is the value. Social media networks have come and gone by the thousands since Twitter first unchained us from the desk. The networks that have lasted longest are the ones that have successfully re-chained and shackled us to their platforms. Threads could do that too – if it stays ad-free, hate-free (or at least hate-light) and billionaire/influencer-ego free. That would give it a rare point of difference and, commercially, it could become the AI training ground of the future. The shift in societal expectation and agreement as to what social networks can and can’t do is significant. Several years ago, Google attempted to launch a micro-blogging service but met with howls of resistance when it auto-enrolled users to the platform. Threads is cunningly and – umbilically – connected to Instagram. There’s no uncoupling to be had unless you want to lose your Instagram, creating instant hostages to its fortune.
Brands and organisations need to take a breath – you don’t have to be on everything. You don’t have to bring shouty capitals with you (New Zealand National Party I’m looking at you). I know most of you aren’t genuinely interested in me (or my network) so stop pretending you are – because that looks a bit hollow right now. Move your focus away from content churn and the sound of your own voice. Think about the relationships you need to develop to keep your licence to operate. If you are going for a ‘presence’ on Threads, put your people up there, not your logo or organisation-speak. Better still, watch and listen first, seek to understand, then play. Twitter’s early success was due entirely to its users. They drove the platform’s shape and form – from the birth of the hashtag to the eco-system of apps that grew up around it. Its demise began with the dominance of a few hideous voices that poisoned not just the platform but the tone of civil engagement, fuelling the insidious rise – and acceptance – of misinformation.
The potential for user influence on the future direction of any social platform is severely limited in today’s world which is why we will never see another ‘Twitter’ as it emerged in 2006. If today’s social media was to post a status update, it would be ‘feeling stale and stagnant, submersed by the power of a few’. But still we return, because our human need is for genuine connection and good relationships. Hope – and blind faith – lead us to believe that the latest outfit on show will fulfil that need but, sadly, I think in time we’ll find ourselves laid bare, stripped of data with our identity in tatters.
Note: I also published this piece on LinkedIn today – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emperors-new-threads-catherine-arrow