Digital Is Killing Serendipity

The buildings are the same, but the information landscape has changed, dramatically.

Today I’m going to write about the college course booklet, an artifact of another time. I hope along the way we might learn something about digital technology, information design, and why we keep getting in our own way when it comes to applying the lessons of the past to the possibilities of the future. But to do that, we have to start with a story.  

Forty years ago this summer I was a rising Freshman at UC Berkeley. Like most 17- or 18- year olds in the pre-digital era, I wasn’t particularly focused on my academic career, and I wasn’t much of a planner either. As befit the era, my parents, while Berkeley alums, were not the type to hover – it wasn’t their job to ensure I read through the registration materials the university had sent in the mail – that was my job. Those materials included a several-hundred-page university catalog laying out majors, required courses, and descriptions of nearly every class offered by each of the departments. But that was all background – what really mattered, I learned from word of mouth, was the course schedule, which was published as a roughly 100-page booklet a few weeks before classes started. 

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At Threads, No News Is Good News, For Now. But That’s About To Change.

Threads is a week old today, and in those short seven days, the service has lapped generative AI as the favorite tech story of the mainstream press. And why not? Threads has managed to scale past 100 million users in just five days — far faster than ChatGPT, which broke TikTok’s record just a few months ago. That’s certainly news — and news is what drives the press, after all.

Threads has re-established Meta as a hero in tech’s endless narrative of good and evil — I can’t count the number of posts I’ve seen from influential public figures joking that, thanks to Threads, they actually like Mark Zuckerberg again. And Meta can certainly relish this win — the company has been the scapegoat for the entire tech industry for the better part of a decade.

But were I an executive at Meta responsible for Threads, I’d not be sleeping that well right about now. As they well know, the relationship between the tech industry and the press can shift in an instant. Glowing stories about breaking app download records can just as quickly become hit pieces about how Meta has leveraged its monopoly position in social media to vanquish yet another market, killing free speech and “real news” along the way. So far that story has been confined to the fringes of Elon’s bitter troll army over on whatever remains of Twitter these days, but should Threads lap Twitter as the largest app focused on creating a “public square” — whatever that means — the worm will quickly turn.

Meta has a tiger by the tail here, and so far, they’ve been working hard to tamp down expectations. Both Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri have been active on Threads, posting daily with both practiced humility (“gosh this thing is succeeding well beyond our expectations,” “we’re just at the starting line,” “we know we’re over our skis”) and reminders about how Threads isn’t like Twitter. Mosseri, for example, has downplayed the role of news — Twitter’s main differentiation and its endlessly maddening Achilles hell; Zuckerberg’s first Thread defined his new service as “an open and friendly public space” — prompting Musk to fire back that he’d rather be “attacked by strangers on Twitter” than live in “hide the pain” world of Instagram.

But The News — with all of its complications — is coming for Threads. I left Twitter more than six months ago, and while I sometimes missed feeling connected to the real time neural net the app had become for me, I almost instantly felt better about both myself and the world. Living on Twitter means navigating an unceasing firehose of toxicity, and Musk’s interventions only worsened the poisonous atmosphere of the place. I joined Threads a half hour after it launched, and indeed, it was a giddy place, its initial users basking in the app’s surprising lack of toxicity.

Other journalists have noticed the same thing. For now, the narrative around Threads centers on its extraordinary growth, but a close second is how “nice” the place feels compared to Twitter. Meta executives would like to keep it that way — combining “what Instagram does best” with “a friendly place for public conversation,” as Zuck put it in his first post.

To that fantasy, I say good luck to you, Mr. Zuckerberg. Keeping Threads “nice” means controlling the conversation in ways that are sure to antagonize just about everyone. No company — not Facebook, not Instagram, not Reddit, and certainly not Twitter, has figured out content moderation at scale. If, as Zuckerberg claimed, the goal with Threads is to create a “town square with more than 1 billion people,” the center of that square will have to contain news. And news, I can tell you from very personal experience, is the front door to a household full of humans screaming at each other.

“Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads,” Mosseri told the Hard Fork podcast last week, “But we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.”

I’ll have more to say about that sentiment in another post, but for now, I’ll leave it at this: When Threads hits 300 million active users — roughly the size of Twitter — the love affair between the press and Threads will more than likely come to an end.

I’ll be talking to Meta’s head of advertising Nicola Mendelsohn at P&G Signal tomorrow. You can register here for free.

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Threads: We Don’t Want to “Hang Out With Everybody.” Sometimes, We Want To Leave.

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Apparently the open web has finally died. This the very same week Meta launches Threads, which, if its first day is any indication, seems to be thriving (10 million sign ups in its first few hours, likely 50 million by the time this publishes…).

But before Threads’ apparent success, most writers covering tech had decided that the era of free, open-to-the-public, at scale services like Twitter, Reddit, and even Facebook/Insta is over. I’ll pick on this recent one from The Verge: So where are we all supposed to go now?

The piece argues that the decline of Twitter (Elon’s killing it), Reddit (it’s killing itself), and Instagram (it’s just entertainment now!) has left “an everybody-sized hole in the internet. For all these years, we all hung out together on the internet. And now that’s just gone.”

Umm…no. And not because of Threads (I’ll get to that in a minute). We never did “hang out together on the internet.” Anyone who knows Twitter knows it’s always been a cliquey echo chamber run by public narcissists. Reddit’s always been where a relatively small group of highly disaffected kids make fun of…everyone. And Instagram? Last I checked, it was still growing – even before Threads. Besides, no one ever “hung out” on Insta, I mean, it started as a photo service, remember? Complaining that it’s become an entertainment service is equivalent to moaning that TikTok is unusable because you’re getting old. Oh wait, Verge’s cousin Vox has already done that too.

Sure, you can “hang out” on some random subreddit, or get into endless flame wars with 12 other idiots on Twitter, or join an Instagram Live with a few hundred other voyeurs, but…that’s certainly not “everyone hanging out together on the Internet.” The very idea is ridiculous. We’re not built to “hang out with everyone,” and we never will be. Many of us, me included, are built to hang out with about six people at a time. And they change depending on context.

Trend pieces noting that the web has changed aren’t annoying because they’re wrong (of course the web is changing), they’re annoying because they miss the core problem: Centralization. We’ve been living in a centralized web world for more than a decade now, one where all the data, graphs (social, commercial, etc), and value are concentrated and managed by large corporations hell bent on protecting their most precious resource – your attention. To make sure you keep paying attention, corporations have made it very, very difficult to do the one thing all of us want to do from time to time: We want to leave.

The problem with the past ten or so years of Internet history is that we couldn’t leave when we wanted to – at least not without severe penalty. When I left Twitter last November, for example, I instantly lost a social graph I had built over 15 years, tens of thousands of my posts, an audience of nearly 300,000, not to mention my primary real-time news and information source. I couldn’t take any of that with me as I decamped to Twitter imitators like BlueSky or Mastodon. Neither of them had the rich networks of people that Twitter once had, and they were much the poorer for it.

But what they did have was compelling: A decentralized model that promised that, if I wanted to leave again, I could bring the value I helped create anywhere I wanted to. Both BlueSky and Mastodon are built on published protocols – essentially technology specs that other developers and entrepreneurs can leverage to build competing (or complementary) services. One of the most popular of these protocols is called ActivityPub – that’s what powers Mastodon. And in one of the smartest moves I’ve seen out of Meta in ages*, Instagram’s Threads will support ActivityPub.

Threads is built on top of Instagram’s social graph, which means if you’ve created value on that network, you’ll instantly have value on Threads. I have several thousand followers on Insta, an artifact of my early use of the place (I stopped posting regularly years ago). But when I joined Threads last night, I already had thousands of latent connections from Insta, and that network resurfaced almost immediately. People with super active Insta handles saw this effect in a much stronger way – in essence, Meta has created another way to create engagement across its network, so bully for them.

But if Meta keeps its promise to incorporate ActivityPub, that engagement and the social graphs driving it can be exported to any other service that supports the ActivityPub protocol. This means that if Threads turns into a Twitter-like hellscape in coming years, we can all take our attention, and our data, to a competing service like Mastodon. That kind of competitive threat undermines the web’s current business model of centralized, locked-in attention farming. You know, the very model upon which Facebook built an empire. Before yesterday, you couldn’t take your Instagram social graph and its related data to anywhere else on the web. But with Threads, you can. That’s progress.

For more than a decade I’ve been railing about how we’ll never get a truly open, highly innovative Internet until it becomes possible to build services that share data through standardized, easy to use protocols. I called these services “meta services” – services that thrive above the control of any one platform. In one stroke, Meta has capitalized that phrase (in every meaning of the term) and staked out the high ground – declaring itself willing to compete not on its ability to lock your data into a silo, but to provide you a superior service that keeps you engaged regardless of your ability to leave. This will prove extremely valuable for public dialog – a use case that has suffered massively thanks to the terrible incentives created by the attention economy.  And for that, I tip my cap to Meta. Never thought that day would come, but here it is.

*Two other smart moves from Meta recently: Open sourcing its LLM, and naming Threads based on Twitter terminology. 

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