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.