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This Week in Discourse: Fightin' all the time
Threads fights to survive, Hillbilly singer fights the conservatives, and one TV show is fighting their own fandom shippers
You made it to another week! Rejoice! As a reward here is the week’s finest discourse and social media news, for all you internet gremlins to feast on.
Threads tries to come back from the dead
Adam Smith once said “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” after a British defeat in the American Revolutionary War. His point was that despite the news of a ruinous defeat, the British Empire was in such a strong position it could be ‘ruined’ over and over and over before the ‘ruin’ would stick. This is basically how I feel about Twitter. There’s a great deal of failure in a dominant social media site. Elon does seem to be walking down that path, and the actual core service of Twitter is suffering in a way it hasn’t for years. But even with Elon’s lunacy, Twitter will have to fail over and over and over before it can actually, permanently fail.
But! If Twitter does fail, I suspect that Meta’s Theory of Scale will end up defeating BlueSky’s Theory of Status. BlueSky is indie and open-source and cool and has the best shitposters, while Threads belongs to Meta and Mark Zuckerberg who are very much not cool. But Threads is going to have a userbase several orders of magnitude larger than BlueSky and ultimately that may matter more than what seems high status. BlueSky is still very small (and not because they choose to be, but because they can’t seem to handle the technical problem of scaling up right now). Status games only matter if you can actually get in the door to play them, and unless BlueSky can also begin to scale quickly, they may just get left behind.
I’m still skeptical Twitter fails entirely - as I said before, it will take a lot of killing to kill Twitter. But Threads and BlueSky are good representatives of the two theories of how to replace Twitter if it does fall. BlueSky is banking on status - be cool, be exclusive, grow sustainably and over time you become the new place to be, the place where social status can be gained. Threads is going for pure scale - people aren’t looking for cool, they just want to be in the biggest place where all their friends are, and Threads was instantly much bigger than any other Twitter clone.
Subscribing to Infinite Scroll will help the cool exclusive blog reach scale, and you can say you were here before it was famous.
How have these theories held up? Both are having some issues. BlueSky is still growing, but its reputation is slowly changing from ‘place where the cool kids post’ to ‘place with insane dramatic nonsense’. Not ideal, but perhaps that can still work in its own way. Meanwhile Threads has had a severe drop in user engagement. Right after launch they hit 49 million daily active users, and now they’re down to 10 million.
Why is Threads’s theory of scale not working? I’ll posit two reasons.
The first is that scale only matters if the dominant competitor is actually dead. When Reddit killed Digg, it happened over the course of a about a week - it was that quick. Digg died hard and fast, Reddit was the biggest existing competitor, and thus Reddit reaped all the rewards. Twitter, as you may have noticed, is not dead. Threads’ scale advantage over BlueSky doesn’t really matter when both are still dwarfed by Twitter. If you’re dealing with a dominant player who is dying very, very slowly, then the status theory of replacing them (BlueSky) may end up being the correct model.
The second is that Threads is still a beta, broken product. There’s no DMs. There’s no search function. And at launch they didn’t even have the ability to post from the web! Maybe this was all in service of getting out the door quickly while Twitter seemed to be collapsing, but it’s been a hard product to use on a purely functional level.
They’re trying to remedy this. Threads just launched the highly anticipated web app, and maybe this will goose engagement a bit. I’m a bit of a boomer in spirit, and massively prefer posting on my laptop as opposed to my phone, so maybe I’ll give Threads another try soon.
I think search and trending topics are the next big thing they really, desperately need. Joey Politano pointed out on Twitter -
“The biggest strength of Twitter is that when massive news stories break it is the single-fastest way to get large amounts of information in real-time, and nobody is breaking this site's stranglehold on its core userbase until they can replicate that.”
Threads’ lack of search or trending topics to be able to participate in that sort of breaking news frenzy is a really big deal. People don’t just want to post in general, they want to be part of conversations, they want to be part of The Current Thing. Threads has no infrastructure right now to support finding or tracking The Current Thing! They’ll need it to survive, and fast.
Hillbilly Song Man hits back at Republicans
Last week I wrote about the viral hit “Rich Men North of Richmond” and the unhinged response liberals and progressives had to the song’s popularity. And this week, I’m taking a victory lap because it turns out Oliver Anthony isn’t a Trump-loyalist-Republican-operative-conservative-culture-warrior like he was accused of being. He’s actually pissing off most of those people right now.
Anthony has gotten very famous, very quickly. Some media estimates peg him as currently making north of $40,000 per day from his hit song, and he’s apparently turned down an $8M record deal from a major label. Most of that popularity has been from the political right, who’ve basically used him as a mascot to promote whichever piece of culture war nonsense they’re talking about at the moment.
Unfortunately for them, Anthony keeps ruining their narrative and the conservatives are not happy:
Anthony further ruined the narrative when he expressed frustration that his song was played at the Republican presidential debate, saying “It’s aggravating seeing people on conservative news try to identify with me like I’m one of them” and “That song is written about the people on that stage. And a lot more too, not just them, but definitely them.”
I have a bunch of reactions to this. First, to all the people who freaked out about this guy being a horrifying bigot or a psy-op or whatever, I told you so. Take a breath next time before you hyperventilate. Second, good for this guy that he refuses to be someone else’s political mascot. I still think he should have taken that $8M bag (remember kids, always take the money and run), but he’ll be fine either way.
Third - this guy seems to be like most people, which is to say that he’s a confusing mix of good and bad opinions that don’t always make much sense. If you’re an ideological online politics person, you need realize you are the weird one. Most people do not have coherent political ideologies where every idea fits neatly together. They just like what they like and shrug their shoulders at the rest, and they don’t think about politics nearly as much as you. It’s perfectly normal for this guy to be mad at welfare recipients but also be pro-diversity, for him to complain about taxes but also hate elite Republicans (and probably Democrats too). He was always just a normal guy. In the man’s own words:
Once again, Elon had a week full of breaking things and extremely stupid decisions. Just a couple of them:
Twitter briefly deleted everything on their servers from 2014 or earlier as well as nuking all t.co link shortener links, including the famous ‘Ellen Oscar Selfie’. Luckily it all seems to be restored now, but this is the current state of technical prowess at Twitter.
Last week Elon said he wanted to get rid of blocks. This week it appears the core functionality he wants to destroy is links. When you post a link on Twitter, it will typically display an image, the link’s title and a brief description or subheader. Like this:
Elon is reportedly pushing to remove the title and description, leaving only the image??? This makes no sense to me - are people supposed to randomly click on images without know the story subject? Are the images supposed to change to include text? Nevertheless, the man himself confirmed it was true, saying it would ‘improve esthetics’
Ronan Farrow wrote a blockbuster piece in the New Yorker about Musk. There’s a ton in there and it’s worth your time to read fully. Some tidbits - the US government pretty much actively considered Musk a security risk at this point, fellow billionaires describe him as ‘only wanting to solve problems if he gets the credit’, and details on his history of promising things he can’t deliver.
Elon is threatening to sue non-profits that report hate speech is rising on Twitter.
Finally - no post has ever been as much of a lie as this post is a lie:
Links and Posts
Anne Helen Petersen has a great longread about Bama Rush. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I love reading about weird subculture social media trends that I’m not a part of.
Great piece in the NYTimes about how hesitant many people are to date an influencer - is a high follower count a turn off?
The TV show Riverdale was so afraid of disappointing their fandom’s romantic ‘shippers’ that they resolved their love rectangle in the final episode by making them all polyamorous, so that everyone is dating everyone.
LOL is ancient, LMAO is so out of date, IJBOL is the new hotness
Gen Z’s version of ‘epic bacon’ is their obsession with pickles
This is not a fun fact at all
MrBeast causes geopolitical incidents