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Second thoughts about Threads

The other day I posted a surprisingly glowing first impression of Meta’s new Threads app. This is the counterpart to that.

The site is brands, man. All of it. It’s like the glossy fashion magazine of social networks.

And I get it. I really do. This is going to succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — it hit 50 million users yesterday without breaking a sweat — and we’ll all be using it for years to come. It probably will accelerate the fediverse in the way I previously suggested. It’s slick and beautiful and easy to use, and if you want to talk to Paris Hilton or engage in conversation with Taco Bell, there it is.

But there’s a bad taste in my mouth that isn’t going away, that has its roots in the genocide that Meta enabled through its actions and inactions, and the political polarization in the United States that it was undoubtedly a part of, and in Cambridge Analytica and election engineering, and in the very American impulse to not give a shit about what’s happening outside your borders if you’re comfortable and you can make a buck.

Social media was at an inflection point where movements with the potential to radically change society were building through hashtags and calls to action. Black Lives Matter, MeToo, and entire democratic revolutions started on social media. And whether by design or by accident, the fertile platforms that allowed those movements to build and grow are fundamentally gone. Some people called these ideas political extremism; I thought of them as hopeful signs. These spaces have evaporated and we’re left with targeted engagement from Wendy’s: brand managers and marketing targets.

The spirit and community of Mastodon was and is very hopeful to me. It is a non-profit space, co-operatively built and run in a way that is fully in alignment with its communities. The problem is, it’s also a dog to use, and there are enough people who are a part of those networks who are adamant that it’s okay that there’s a high barrier to entry. It’s not okay. There was a populist fascist in the White House, and there may be again, and these are pretty high stakes for the entire world. I care more about the ability for democratic mass movements to form and grow than maintaining the coziness of a community that wants to put Black peoples’ lived experiences at the hands of modern day segregation behind content warnings.

So I also think Threads represents a giant failure of the community to create something that works. If Mastodon had taken off, or if there was another space that was designed around democracy and equity that had lived up to this moment, Threads wouldn’t have worked. But it didn’t and there wasn’t, and 50 million people are engaging with Netflix and Dior on a platform that sat back and allowed the Rohingya people to be slaughtered in the name of ad engagement while the new proprietor of the social network next door is busy calling social justice a mind virus.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t still time, or there isn’t, perhaps, a way to use the Threads network to build stronger community scaffolding. But it requires intent: not just to build a network, but to support democracy. We have not yet achieved this, and I hope that we will. There may come a point where we don’t get another chance.

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