Mark Zuckerberg may soon have reason to regret pushing Threads out the door before it was ready. Lindsey Choo reports for The Wall Street Journal (free link, I think; apologies if it doesn’t work) that user engagement has fallen by 70% since its July 7 peak.
No doubt Zuckerberg wanted to take advantage of Elon Musk’s Fourth of July weekend freakout, when he limited the number of posts you could read on Twitter (especially if you weren’t a paid subscriber), cut off access to individual tweets for non-members (thus blowing up our news feed at What Works), and killed off classic TweetDeck in favor of a new, lesser update.
But Threads is frustrating to use. The biggest problem is that you can only access it on a mobile device. Also missing: a reverse-chrono tab of accounts you follow, thus clogging up your feed with brands and celebrities you don’t care about, as well as no lists and no hashtags.
Mastodon has been my first stop since Musk took over Twitter last fall, but its decentralized nature presents problems of its own. It’s difficult to find what you’re looking for, there are parts of the unfortunately named Fediverse that are invisible to you, and most of the people and accounts I need to follow just aren’t there. Bluesky is still invitation-only and has had problems of its own.
I realize this is of little interest to most people, but for those of us whose work depends on social media to some degree, it’s been an interesting — and frustrating — nine months.
Although Mastodon is my preferred Twitter alternative, there’s every indication that Threads is going to emerge as the closest thing we get to a true Twitter replacement. It’s missing a lot — browser access, a reverse-chronological feed of your followers, and lists, to name just a few. I can really do without the celebrities and brands that Threads is pushing. But it’s already got mass appeal, a precious commodity that it’s not likely to relinquish.
There are reports that Mark Zuckerberg and company rushed this out the door before it was ready in order to take advantage of Elon Musk’s meltdown last weekend. Musk rewarded Zuckerberg by sending him a cease-and-desist order — precious publicity for an app that is taking off. As I said yesterday, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, but I suspect users will give Zuckerberg some time to get it right.
In addition to Twitter, I suspect the big loser in this may be Bluesky, started by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. I finally scored an invitation earlier this week and have been playing around. I like it. But Dorsey has got to regret the leisurely pace he’s taken.
For now, I’m posting mainly to Mastodon because I want to, Twitter because I have to, and Bluesky and Threads because I’m checking them out. I’ve given up on Post. (If you’re reading this on the Media Nation website, my social media feeds are in the right-hand rail.) But it wouldn’t surprise me if this quickly devolves into a war between Twitter and Threads, with everyone else reduced to spectator status.
They say you only get one chance to make a good first impression. If that’s true, then Mark Zuckerberg missed that chance with the debut of Threads. There’s no browser access, so you’re stuck using your phone. You can’t switch to a reverse-chronological non-algorithmic feed of accounts you follow. Even Elon Musk still lets you do that at Twitter. No lists.
The whole thing, teeming with brands and celebrities you’re not interested in, feels very commercial in a forced-joviality, trying-too-hard way. These things can be fixed unless Zuck thinks they’re features rather than bugs. For now, though … not great.
Elon Musk isn’t laughing with us. He’s laughing at us. Photo (cc) 2022 by Steve Jurvetson.
Update:Ivan Mehta of TechCrunch reports that Twitter may have already reversed itself on requiring log-ins to view tweets. I’ll test it later and think about whether I want to go to the trouble of restoring our Twitter timeline to What Works.
Today I want to return to a topic that I write about from time to time: the ongoing travails of Twitter under Elon Musk and the future of what I’ll call short-form interactive social media, which some people still refer to as “microblogging.” It’s something that’s of no interest to the vast majority of people (and if I’m describing you, then you have my congratulations and admiration) but of tremendous interest to a few of us.
You may have heard that a number of changes hit Twitter over the weekend, some deliberate, some perhaps accidental. They cut back on the number of posts you could read before encountering a “rate limit” of 600 per day for non-subscribers and 6,000 a day for those who pay $8 a month. Those limits were later raised. Now, very few people are paying $8 for those blue check marks and extra privileges, and you can reach 600 (or 800, or 1,000, or whatever it is at the moment) pretty quickly if you’re zipping through your timeline. It was and is a bizarre limitation, since it means that users will spend less time on the site and will see fewer of Twitter’s declining inventory of ads.
Twitter also got rid of its classic TweetDeck application, which lets you set up columns for lists, notifications and the like, and switched everyone over to a new, inferior version — and then announced that TweetDeck will soon be restricted to those $8-a-month customers.
Finally, and of the greatest significance to me and my work, you can no longer view a tweet unless you’re actually logged in to Twitter. We’ve all become accustomed to news outlets embedding tweets in stories. I do it myself sometimes. Well, now that has stopped working. Maybe it’s not that big a deal. After all, you can take a screenshot and/or quote from it, just as you can from any source. But it’s an extra hassle for both publishers and readers.
Moreover, this had a significant negative effect on What Works, the website about the future of local news that Ellen Clegg and I host. Just recently, I decide to add a news feed of updates and brief items to the right-hand rail, powered by Twitter. It was a convenient way of informing our readers regardless of whether they were Twitter users. And on Monday, it disappeared. What I’ve come up with to replace it is a half-solution: A box that links to our Mastodon account, which can still be read by Mastodon nonusers and users alike. But it’s an extra step. In order to add an actual Mastodon news feed we would either need to pay more or switch to a hosting service and put up with the attendant technical challenges.
What is Musk up to? I can’t imagine that he’s literally trying to destroy Twitter; but if he were, he’d be doing exactly what he’s doing. It’s strange. Twitter is now being inundated with competitors, the largest of which is Mastodon, a decentralized system that runs mainly on volunteer labor. But Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey is slowly unveiling a very Twitter-like service called Bluesky (still in beta, and, for the moment, invitation-only), and, this Thursday, Facebook (I refuse to call it Meta) will debut Threads. If Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t screw it up, I think Threads, which is tied to Instagram, might prove to be a formidable challenger.
Still, what made Twitter compelling was that it was essentially the sole platform for short-form interactive social media. The breakdown of that audience into various niches makes it harder for any one service to benefit from the network effect. I’ve currently got conversations going on in three different places, and when I want to share links to my work, I now have to go to Twitter, Mastodon and Bluesky (which I just joined), not to mention Facebook and LinkedIn.
And speaking of the network effect: Twitter may be shrinking, but, with 330 million active monthly users, it’s still by far the largest of the three short-form platforms. Mastodon was up to 10 million registered users as of March (that number grows in spurts every time Musk indulges his inner sociopath), and Bluesky has just 100,000 — although another 2 million or so are on the wait list. What that means for my work is that just a handful of the media thought leaders I need to follow and interact with are on Mastodon or Bluesky, and, from what I can tell, none (as in zero) of the people and organizations that track developments in local news have budged from Twitter.
It will likely turn out that the social media era was brief and its demise unlamented. In the meantime, what’s going on is weird and — for those of us who depend on this stuff — aggravating. In some ways, I would like to see one-stop short-form social media continue. My money is on Threads, although I suspect that Zuckerberg’s greed will prevent it from realizing its full potential.