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Threads is a New Mall (but still a mall)
Why this time won't be different.
“You don't find a sense of community in malls.” ― Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent
There are two kinds of users on for-profit social media: people with something to sell (or promote, etc.) and suckers, frankly, who don’t realize they’re trying to authentically express themselves in someone else’s shopping mall. See- Malls can’t have too many features that don’t earn money, because then customers wouldn’t be customers, they would just be people. And malls, like social media, don’t want people. They want consumers.
Like social media, real malls have to strike the balance of maximizing the money it’s taking in from tenants (stores), but without doing it too aggressively or in a way makes customers uncomfortable. The difference between actual shopping malls and social media of course is that you can get real stuff at the mall, whereas social media at best provides shallow entertainment (often cosplaying as news). You could say social media offers all the superficial “fun” associated with 1980’s and 90’s suburban mall culture, without actually giving you anything of substance, or at least, not giving you anything more substantial than you could get without it.
1. The King is Dead (monarchy is cringe anyway)
As Twitter lay dying (and dying, and dying), many pretenders are circling; each of them vying to claim the crown of what used to be called “microblogging”. It seems like nearly every month now, staff writers at The Verge become obsessed with a different character-limited text box: Mastodon, BlueSky, Substack Notes, and now- Meta’s “Threads”.
It’s a bit weird to me that so many for-profit companies are hoping to be “the next” Twitter despite Twitter first of all still existing, but more importantly the fact that it’s never turned a profit in nearly two decades of trying to do precisely that. The fact that Twitter has changed so much since Elon Musk took it private is not, I suspect, evidence of Elon being malicious or singularly foolhardy, as is so often portrayed, but evidence that the business model he inherited just didn’t work without a constant influx of new investment. Whatever your opinions of the man’s politics (or level of emotional security), Musk has proven himself reasonably capable of one thing, and that’s amassing stupid amounts of money. I suspect that Elon is doing to Twitter openly what other social media companies do secretly, which is target the maximum amount of toxicity its users are willing to tolerate. More toxicity = more engagement = more time on the platform = more ads served.
But users will only tolerate toxicity up to a point at which they’ll pack up and leave. It’s easy to imagine that there’s some magic “tipping point” amount of toxicity that will cause a platform to implode, but that’s not the case. The quitting point for every user is different, and the only thing that can cause a platform to truly go away is no money. And, as evidenced by 4chan’s continued existence, there’s always some class of user who will tolerate a lot of toxicity.
I suspect that Twitter is following the 80/20 rule: prioritizing the 20% of users who generate the most money for them, and hoping that they can keep enough of the other 80% to stay relevant (or at least net-profitable). Twitter may be losing its cultural stature, but it still has millions of users who for some reason or another, haven’t hit their breaking points; and as long as users are there, advertisers and promoters will be too.
2. If Twitter is crack, Threads is vaping.
If Twitter’s plan is prioritizing its more “spendy” users by leaning hard into emotionally-charged engagement (ie; toxicity), I think what Meta is going for with Threads is trying to be so routine and unexciting that you don’t even realize you’re opening the app. Twitter wants users to obsess over it when they’re not on it. Meta doesn’t want you to think about its apps at all, it wants to integrate itself into your life to the point where you don’t even notice you’re using it.
In other words: Twitter wants to be crack cocaine, Meta wants Threads to be vaping.
Vaping is harmless enough that it won’t suddenly kill you, innocuous and ubiquitous enough that few would openly judge you for using, and addictive enough where you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Something to fill the time that would otherwise be spent oh, I don’t know, thinking I guess.
Threads brands itself as a “sane” alternative to Twitter, but knowing Meta, “sane” likely means “lobotomized”. Like- sure Threads probably won’t hurt people to the degree Twitter is. But is a semi-lucid social media platform drooling out the corner of its mouth really what anybody is asking for?
I’m frequently saying that users should look to what a space is built for before investing their time in it. Was Threads built for conversation or was it built for commerce? I think you know the answer.
3. Mastodon is so 2002
The thing about shopping malls is that they can only exist when the downtown shopping district of whatever city it’s a suburb of, dies. Shopping malls served as the de-facto town squares —the cultural hubs— of the USA in the 80’s and 90’s because the actual town squares laid abandoned. The reason shopping malls enjoyed massive cultural relevancy in the 80s and 90s, was not because it was an improvement over downtowns, but because it was an improvement over no downtowns.
Developers razed city centers and then built for-profit walkable indoor faux-neighborhoods in the ‘burbs after the moneyed class moved. And that’s exactly what social media companies did to the Internet, which began as free and open, before users were shepherded onto a handful of commercial platforms with the siren song of “connectivity”.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, a certain class of young people pejoratively referred to as “hipsters” began moving to US cities in search of the gritty authenticity they felt was lacking in the safe and sterile malls of the ‘burbs. Most people today associate hipster culture with fancy beer, trendy clothing, and pretentious attitudes. “Hipster” today usually refers to high-income “gentrifiers” of urban areas. But that’s not how it started. At least, not how I remember it…
When I was a young millennial, my friends and I saw the “Hipster” migration as an anti-consumerist movement. We saw young people rejecting commercial social spaces and reclaiming abandoned city squares. “Hipsters” bought their clothes at thrift stores, not malls. They built their own easily repairable “fixie” bikes instead of driving gas-powered cars. They weren’t buying craft beer, they were brewing their own. And they weren’t “gentrifying” in the way it’s usually understood now —by economically displacing people who already live in a city— they were moving to largely abandoned industrial areas, and renovating raw “loft” apartments that used to be commercial factories.
I’m sure I’m romanticizing a little, but as a bored suburban kid, it was exciting to see the big kids trying out a radically different way of living all while making it look cool. But corporate America correctly identified the danger a group of people living happily without them posed. Ever realize how nobody uses the term “yuppie” anymore? It basically referred to the same thing that “hipster” refers to now. So why the new word? The conspiracy-brained part of me can’t help but feel that maybe “yuppie” was intentionally rebranded in an effort to make “not-malls” seem “not-cool” the same way car companies spent a lot to make minivans and station wagons uncool.1
The growth of Mastodon and the “Fediverse” kinda remind me of that punk rock, anti-consumerist, DIY spirit from the turn of the millennium. But instead of beer, people are brewing up organic communities. Due to its decentralized nature, Mastodon-powered platforms can’t be “enshittified”. Corporations can't fight with money something that doesn't want to be monetized. Their only hope is to convince you it’s not cool.
4. Meta’s real competition
Facebook’s pivot to the “metaverse” reminds me of the “new style” of shopping mall we started seeing pop up 3-4 years ago. Regular malls were dying, the story goes, so they tried making themselves more exciting with “immersive experiences” in an effort to lure customers back. It didn’t work for the malls and it’s not working for Meta either.
Threads however, feels like a step back. It’s a new mall built in the old mall style. And I can’t imagine it’ll work. Like I’m sure people are going to go check out the grand opening, buy a cookie, and maybe throw a penny into the fountain. But I don’t think people will generally seek out Threads unless of course, there’s nothing more interesting to be done. Heck- maybe “shopping mall” is the wrong analogy, actually, because I don’t think being a destination is what Meta is even going for. I think they want their apps to be like Walmart. Nobody seeks out a Walmart, they stop at one because it’s there, it’s easy, and it’s good enough. Kinda like Instagram while waiting for the bus.
Meta’s products are sterile, corporate, and uninspiring2. But they don’t need to be a destination, they just need to be available for when users start to feel that itch of boredom and seek out a quick hit of low-stakes algorithmically-sorted content. I don’t even think it’s right to say that Threads is “competing” with Twitter exactly, Twitter’s slow death is just an opportunity for Meta to capture users who might otherwise risk the cosmic horror of sitting alone with their thoughts. Meta’s true competition isn’t Twitter, it’s downtime.
I’d be shocked, frankly, if Threads can strike the balance nobody else has managed to strike —including Twitter itself— of making short text posts profitable. And don’t think for a second if Threads by some miracle happens to achieve cultural relevancy, that it won’t quickly become “enshittified”. There’s a reason signing up for Threads holds your Instagram account hostage —preventing you from deleting Threads without taking Instagram along— and it’s not because Meta believes it’s a good product people will want long term. Don’t sign up for platforms that won’t let you leave, kids. As Cory Doctorow recently reminded us:
“Meta was able to [grow Threads quickly] because it owns both Threads and Instagram. But Meta does not own the list of people you trust and enjoy enough to follow.
There is one potential good thing Threads might do, and that is actually kill Twitter for good because if Twitter can’t turn a profit soon it’ll actually collapse. If the choice for society is between Twitter’s malignant toxicity, and the sterile uninspiring Walmart-style of a platform that apparently is Threads, Threads is probably a step in the right direction. But neither of these sorts of places can function as a digital town square. For that matter neither can BlueSky, Post, Hive Social, or any of the other weird, corporate-owned malls cosplaying as public spaces.
If we truly want the internet to be “sane”, we need to educate ourselves. We need to build and support home-brewed spaces that are for constructive conversation. Nobody outside of the investor class actually needs a “next Twitter” to be popular the same way nobody needed vaping to replace smoking, but someone somewhere, really wanted tons of money so sorry if you got addicted I guess. Do your sanity a favor, don’t subject yourself to more of Zuckerberg’s algorithms. This time won’t be different.
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tl;dw: Due to laws about farm equipment not being “passenger vehicles”, the margins on trucks and SUVs were so much better because companies didn’t have to meet the same safety standards as vans and station wagons.