I love blogging. It’s a world unto itself. Sites reflecting people’s personalities, their lives, the ebbs and flows of their writing muscle (or photo posting muscle – I do love photo blogs), the business of their lives.
Social media is not like that. Well, some are and some aren’t.
I was reading this post by Ally Bean over on her website where she asked and answered the question – What is Threads (the Facebook-owned twitter clone)? It’s a conundrum, she says. It’s got so many users and yet not enough interaction. Threads calls itself a social network, yet everything is algorithm-led, so you can’t really do your own discovery. And, as Ally puts it –
The thing about Threads is there is no center to it to draw people to a communal “What’s Happening” section or a Writing Prompt or a Weekly Topical Challenge. It’s all random all the time.Ally Bean writing on thespectacledbean.com
My take on this is that there are two types of social media services and mirroring them, two types of social media users. There are the public-first services and the private-first services. There are always exceptions to the rule too.
Public-first services basically take their cue from forums – there’s less or no focus on private messaging. It’s all meant to be open. Whether they’re link aggregators like reddit, or stream of posts sites like twitter, the main goal is that whatever you do on the site is public. Your likes, comments, shares, posts are all visible to everyone. Over time, through user feedback, these services do introduce private accounts, private communities, private messaging. But they pull these features back as quickly as they create them. The intrinsic value they create for their ad-supported profit hungry shareholders is in people doing things publicly.
Private-first services take their cue from email – the first focus is on private communication, which is thoroughly monitored for profiling, again for ad-dollars. Of course, there’s a massive public component of these sites too, including public groups and communities, public profiles, etc. But these are focused mainly on creating starlets with the aim of using these to drive traffic to the site till either the starlets crash and burn, or the algorithm changes and the starlets are left in the lurch. This behavior is similar to that of the music industry, which would assiduously create the persona of a pop singer, only to push them towards drugs and then tear them down as “bad influences”. Rinse and repeat. Facebook and Instagram are examples here. It’s sad that the two main examples I have are both owned by the same company. Snapchat is a competitor service too, but I don’t talk about it because I’m not on it. No network effects for me there. (I’m not on Threads either, but Ally is, and this post is wholly based on her experience and her blogpost. Quick! Someone write a critique of Snapchat!)
The fact is that I’m ignoring two behemoths here – TikTok and YouTube. But are they social media services? No. They’re Media Consumption services. The Social aspect of these services is purely incidental and meant only as a growth vehicle. If tomorrow they are free of the constant user growth requirement, they’ll gladly rip out all of the social aspects of their apps and sites and happily serve their existing users all the content they can shove down their throats.
Within the private-first but public-stream services, the trend is algorithmic feeds. This is a little unfair, because this push into algo-based feeds is by one company – Meta. Their unbenevolent dictator believes that everything becomes better when decided by an algorithm. So that’s what he’s pushing across every one of his properties. But you can’t talk about any other service doing better when there’s one monopoly and the others are fledglings.
That brings us back to Threads. Facebook and Instagram already lean heavily on algorithms for their home feeds. You’re not allowed to see what you want to. You’re forced to see what the algo decides will create more engagement.
But what does this lead to? Silence. Almost everyone I know who is active on Instagram no longer uses their home feed. It’s the list of folks you’ve subscribed to, yes. But never shown in the manner you want to, so might as well use the Explore feed to browse and the private messages to chat with friends about the latest news/memes/gossip (that’s why Instagram uses your private messages to create your profile too). Also, Silence in that, those who I’ve talked to about this no longer comment or hit like on instagram posts. Comments on public pages almost always lead to harassment and unnecessary visibility. Likes are exclusively used by the algo to make your feeds progressively worse by trying to push the same content at you over and over. So why hit like? Incidentally, this is why TikTok prefers to use “seconds watched” as the metric for whether the person was engaged rather than Likes.
Ally complains that it feels rude when people do not interact with her comments on Threads – forget replying, they don’t even hit Like. I argue that this is because the users on Threads are a reflection of the social media service they’re coming from. Almost all the users of Threads have come over from Instagram. They’ve been trained not to interact with content, as that’ll either train the algo or cause unnecessary headache. They’re not rude, they’re simply a reflection of Facebook’s vision of “users”.
Threads isn’t doomed to fail. It can recover and it’ll definitely keep trudging along as long as Meta is willing to lose money on it. Once they decide it’s not the next billion dollar idea though, they’re sunset it post haste. Looking forward to it. Till then, Ally’s words about Threads ring true –
it just kind of bores me.