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Griffin on Tech: Threads of unease

Peter Griffin, Editor. 07 July 2023, 1:49 pm

Mark Zuckerberg’s Twitter killer has been in the works for months, but Elon Musk handed his archrival a perfect launch opportunity following his move last weekend to limit the number of Tweets users can view.

For many veteran Twitter users, who have stuck with the platform as it has buckled under the weight of Musk’s ego, the Twitter view limits were the final straw. So yesterday’s debut of Threads, the Instagram-based social network that mirrors the look and feel of Twitter, was greeted with a surprising amount of warmth and encouragement.

It helps that the platform actually works properly, based as it is on Meta’s technology stack which supports billions of users every day across Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp. Even hardened critics of Facebook, who decamped for good to Twitter following the Cambridge Analytica scandal were busy posting away on Threads yesterday. In less than 24 hours, 30 million users had downloaded the Threads app. I guess they are choosing the lesser of two evils. Or are they?

A beacon of hope or hate?

Anyone jumping into Threads in the hope that it proves to be the viable alternative to Twitter Musk’s critics have been looking for, should listen to Kara Swisher’s recent podcast Oops, I did it again (again) where she recounts moments from her relationship with Mark Zuckerberg over the years.

Be prepared to experience some PTSD as she walks you through the litany of privacy abuses and data scandals, from the Beacon advertising insights fiasco to the wholesale manipulation of Facebook by Russian operatives attempting to tip the 2016 US Presidential Election in Trump’s favour.

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Zuckerberg, Swisher says, has become more adept at dealing with the media in recent years, since his cringeworthy appearances before politicians on Capitol Hill a few years back. But he’s basically still the kid who had “I'm CEO, Bitch” emblazoned on his business card and who for years thought it was reasonable to allow holocaust denial on Facebook.

“I just don’t think it is the right thing to say we are going to take people off the platform if they get things wrong,” Zuckerberg told Swisher during a train wreck interview with Swisher back in 2018.

Instant followers

With Mastodon and BlueSky, it looked earlier in the year that there was a glimmer of hope for Twitter rivals, built on decentralised tech and with different values underpinning them. Now Zuckerberg has shown the power of the Death Star to cruise in and allow millions of existing Instagram users to port their profiles and followers over to Threads. That may be the single biggest factor that sees Threads gain traction - it's just less hassle to move to it that other social platforms.

Threads is apparently based on Instagram, but also ActivityPub, the decentralised protocol that Mastodon uses, though it isn’t networking into other social platforms yet. How that works in the traditionally closed Meta ecosystem is yet to be seen. Then there’s the vexed issue of content moderation. Given Meta’s repeated failures to make the Facebook newsfeed and Instagram comments a pleasant place to hang out, what are its chances of keeping order on a real-time, news-driven platform like Threads?

And what about data collection? Threads' terms and conditions are a real eye opener, outlining how everything from health data to browsing history will be collected - and integrated into the Meta empire. That's why Threads isn't available in the European Union - it would likely fall foul of the Digital Markets Act.

The bottom line is that if Threads succeeds, it just concentrates the power of Meta even further in the English-speaking world of social media. That’s probably not the rescue frustrated Twitter users had in mind.

The air-conditioned nightmare

As Meta’s servers fired up to handle the influx of new Threads users, the real issue of the week was making itself felt...

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