I am not entirely sure if any science fiction was written during the last century that predicted our current social media-driven world. Any sci-fi buff reading this can certainly set me straight on that.
I feel that if you wrote our current time as a science fiction story in say 1957, you would be dismissed as overly cynical. That was a time of rampant optimism about the future, including the International Geophysical Year (IGY), an enormous global science project. There were plenty of advancements, to be sure, as the result of IGY, many of the promises did not come to pass, as pointed out by Noted Cynic Donald Fagen in his song “I.G.Y” off his excellent 1982 solo effort, The Nightfly.
The point is, often we have technological marvels show up and everyone, especially in the media, put too much into them, making bold predictions of how they will make life great, or terrible. Technology is advancing faster than at any time in human history, and there is no doubt the introduction of the Internet, and social media, was one of those touchstone moments where Everything Changed. As an employee at an Internet startup, I had a front-row seat to the early days, including the outlandish predictions of a utopia where everyone would be rich with stock options and all the brick-and-mortar stores would disappear. The truth was somewhere in between.
One of the chapters in the Internet story is Twitter. I am on both Twitter and Facebook, and Twitter clicked for me somewhat more than Facebook. Not to sound too snobbish, but Twitter seemed to have better content than Facebook, which often feels like everyone on it is full of shit. Thanks to Tweetdeck, a second-party Twitter platform, I was largely shielded from ads, forced content I didn’t want to see, and even a lot of the Elon Musk-created nonsense.
However, if the people I follow on Twitter leave, then that ruins Twitter for me. It is all Musk’s fault. Elon has always been a product of hype, with a fawning media declaring his every move a stroke of brilliance. If you were truly paying attention, his erratic behavior demonstrated something else entirely, a strange, mean-spirited clown whose so-called “achievements” were more or less acts of fraudulent smoke-and-mirrors as often as they were breakthroughs. His project to turn Twitter into a far-right clubhouse has driven people away, and most importantly for the business side, has driven away advertisers.
This is too bad because, for all the terrible that could exist on Twitter, it also offered a true community. It provided a place for some brilliant people to share their work, from great writers to scientists to “regular” people, despite this odd idea some hold that anything posted on Twitter instantly became stupid (that Ph.D.s posting on Twitter about their work instantly become idiotic is…dumb). So, the community appears to be migrating to a new social platform, Threads.
Threads is put out there by Meta, formerly known as Facebook although we will always call it Facebook. Meta is owned by another strange billionaire, Mark Zuckerberg, who while not outwardly as unpleasant as Elon Musk, has had his moments of awful, such as when he implied that privacy was for weirdos. Threads is exploding, surpassing 100 million users despite being released only last Wednesday, while Elmo’s Twitter is rapidly taking on water.
Musk is responding in a very shrewd and mature way.
Zuck is a cuck
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 9, 2023
Given that his Tesla losses have enabled him to break the world record for most money lost, by a lot, and his response to a serious competitor is something you’d see from the worst level of Reddit poster, gotta wonder who will ever invest in him again. But does the downfall of Twitter and the rise of Threads mean that Threads will be an online utopia, as some have suggested over this past week?
The Meta person in charge of Threads, Adam Mosseri, posted something I sort of rolled my eyes at. Having been a moderator for a couple of online forums, the idea that Mosseri posits here, that somehow the users will steer the conversation toward nice things, just never works. Someone(s) will throw troll bombs, it’s just how the online world works. His post here was surprisingly transparent in that social media companies don’t want to spend the money required to moderate their forum:
Politics and hard news are important, I don’t want to imply otherwise. But my take is, from a platform’s perspective, any incremental engagement or revenue they might drive is not at all worth the scrutiny, negativity (let’s be honest), or integrity risks that come along with them.
I’d like to believe in unicorns that fart rainbows too, but the thing is, people in 2023 are people in 2023, and if he thinks that posts about last night’s big game and the latest Taylor Swift drama will drown out the hateful and crazy, well, recent history says nope. Threads’ parent app, Instagram, has had a not-great history of allowing hate speech and misinformation on that platform. And even with Threads being less than a week old, the Basket of Deplorables is already heading over there.
Mosseri and his boss want the ad revenue. Yes, Threads does not have ads now but remember how Instagram was proud ad-free for years and now you drown in ads on it? If they do not crack down early and fast on the far-right hate nerds, the Threads brand will get dragged through the muck and advertisers will once again get nervous. The hate nerds will howl about how “Big Tech is censoring” them, but that is just what they do.
Some of us are looking for the old Twitter, the Twitter of the Dress Color Debate, Balloon Boy Twitter, #MeToo Twitter, and the Twitter that was often very valuable during emergencies. Threads could very well become that, but they really need to not be so “whatevs bro” about moderation. Just imagine how bad it will be when/if Elon decides to pull the plug on Twitter and the hate nerds go looking for a new home.
So will Threads be the promised online paradise of nice interactions as predicted by its creators, or a total disaster? The answer depends on how much Meta leaders want to learn from the past as far as human behavior on social media.
The last word goes to Lake Street Dive, a song about bad selfies, which I am sure Threads will offer us as well.