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Why is Threads cringe? And does it matter?
Why every cultural commentator is calling Threads lame
A Terminal Case of Cringe
Since their launch last week, Threads has accumulated more than 100 million users. By most measurements Threads is now the fastest growing app of all time. Some might complain that this is just because they have Instagram’s existing network of 2 billion users to leech from, but this misses the point. However they got them, there are now tens of millions of actual human beings now posting on Meta’s new microblogging service. Threads has emphatically blown away other Twitter imitators and is now in prime position to be the Twitter replacement.1
One of the first things internet denizens noticed about Threads is that it’s just… lame? It’s hard to capture the exact feeling of logging into Threads for the first time, but I got a mixture of earnest and lame and bland. People’s first impression of BlueSky was typically more like this:
In comparison to BlueSky’s ironic detached subculture posting, Threads is the embodiment of beige. And everybody in the cultural commentary game seems to think Threads is awful. Roll the quotes:
It’s a messy, purely algorithmic social media experience that has not put stimulating information in front of my eyeballs during my first handful of hours using it. - Alex Kirshner, Slate
Threads sucks shit. It has no purpose. It is for no one. It launched as a content graveyard and will assuredly only become more of one over time. It’s iFunny for people who miss The Ellen Show. - Ryan Broderick, Garbage Day
“Banana!” cried Instagram head and Minion Adam Mosseri, hitting a cartoonishly oversized red button to launch the company’s dogshit new Twitter clone Threads, named after the company’s previous dogshit Snapchat clone Threads, which shut down in 2021. The new Threads is a place for influencers and brands to kiss… I would rather swallow glass than download a Facebook app. - Rusty Foster, Today in Tabs
I’m here to tell you: THE VIBES ARE OFF… Threads feels like to me now: a place that’s ostensibly interesting (look, so many people are already here!) but is actually totally boring. Anne Helen Petersen, Culture Study
Logging onto Threads is like logging on to the internet roughly a decade ago. I have now seen two strangers share their “hot take” that actually, pineapple on pizza is good, a sentiment copied and pasted from all the world’s most boring Hinge profiles. Rebecca Jennings, Vox
In short: all the cool kids are tripping over themselves to talk about how lame the new thing is compared to the old thing, which they hate but also love. Is it true?
Why are the Vibes on Threads so weird?
I think by and large the instant reactions are correct. Threads really is less interesting, vibrant and cool than Twitter. But most of the commentary above seems to me to be far too focused on expressing how the writer personally is too cool for this shit. There’s not nearly enough curiosity about why this is happening. And the reasons why are interesting, and point to what the future might hold for Threads.
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First: Threads is more heavily moderated than Twitter. You can’t show nudity of any kind. And a lot of the weirdposting that gets tons of engagement on Twitter is simply removed on Threads for violating community guidelines:
Both of these posts are funny and neither would have been removed on Twitter.
Second: The algorithm hasn’t yet learned your preferences. This one’s pretty simple. Facebook absolutely knows how to tune an algorithm for engagement. Instagram’s algorithm works perfectly fine. But what an algorithm can’t do is provide you with an immaculate experience within the first hour of signing up. Probably even the first few days! Especially when all the posters and friends and content creators you like might not have joined just yet.
But of course, writers and bloggers have to get the takes out FAST. If you’re not a writer, believe me that it’s hard to overstate the pressure to move quickly in this business. A take can go from incredibly interesting and insightful to tired and stale within a day. And the first person to publish on a topic will often garner the most hits.
So we ended up in a situation where the culture writers and the internet beat reporters were some of the first people to rush into Threads, and where they probably browsed for an hour or two before declaring Threads incredibly lame. The algorithm hadn’t yet learned what they wanted, so their feed was filled with mostly generic celebrity and brand posting:
The good news here is that while the community guidelines might be permanent, the algorithm’s failure won’t be. As more people join, as you follow more people you like, and as you scroll more, the algorithm will get better at showing you the stuff you actually like. Threads will almost certainly get better.
Third: The algorithm starts out by showing everyone big accounts, but those accounts are big Instagram accounts. And crucially, Instagram is a platform where creators are typically good at visual content but terrible at posting in a microblogging style. There’s a saying that ‘Twitter is for people who are ugly but witty, Instagram is for people who are beautiful and stupid”. Like most pithy sayings, this isn’t completely correct but there is a nugget of truth to it.
Instagram simply has a very, very different vibe to it. Obviously it’s focused on the visual, not on text. It’s more cheerful and more influencer focused. There’s very little back-and-forth conversation or exchange in the way that Twitter’s replies and quotes provide. All this means that the people who have optimized for Instagram are going to seem very odd on Threads. I think this too will change over time - people will learn that Threads and Instagram are wildly different mediums requiring different styles.2
Fourth: There are different people posting. Twitter attracted a certain kind of person, and those people defined the tone of what Twitter was. As the replacements appeared, they’ve also appealed to distinct crowds. Mastodon appears to be a place where people are deeply nerdy and in the weeds about tech stuff. BlueSky appears to have the most ‘posters’ in the classic Twitter style. And Threads seems to have everyone else. BlueSky is objectively3 cooler, but people would rather be in the less cool place with 100M users rather than the cool place with 300,000 users (and nobody can get an invite to BlueSky anyways). Obviously a site that captures the masses will feel different than a very niche site like BlueSky.
Does any of this matter?
I think it does matter that Threads feels less weird, interesting, cool and exciting than Twitter. To explain why, we have to talk about what it means for a social media site to be successful.
Instagram is an objectively4 more successful site than Twitter. It is more profitable. It has more users. I could keep citing metrics, and Instagram would win almost all of them. But there are ways beyond the numbers that Twitter was more important than Instagram.
For almost a decade, Twitter was massively influential on real world politics, media and culture. Things that started there could change society. What was trending on Twitter really and genuinely mattered. Politicians were often more responsive to (and in tune with) the Twitter mob than their actual constituents. Actual revolutions were sparked and influenced by Twitter.
When is the last time that anything that happened on Instagram actually mattered to the real world?
I think there's an interesting trade off between the chaotic freedom of Twitter and a more curated moderated experience that Threads appears to be aiming for. Twitter was the Hell Site, sure, but their 'Burning Man Libertarian' vision of online freedom does seem to have made it culturally more important than other platforms. It was the place where subcultures and political groups interacted and fought and dunked on each other. You could be a truly terrible person on Twitter and not get banned, and weirdly it seems like this might have contributed to the magic.5 Twitter was tolerant of Nazis, but it was also far more tolerant of marginalized groups like sex workers than almost any other social network. It really was the ‘public town square’, and it wasn’t afraid to be unsafe for brands.
Instagram just does not have that sense of freedom or that sense of being the town square, but it’s also a more normal/healthy place in many ways. It has its own issues to be sure, but pick a random interaction on Twitter and it’s far more likely to be hostile than one on Instagram. It's also a profitable business6 that's not continually dysfunctional like Twitter is and was. I suspect there are quite a few people who philosophically and legally support Twitter’s level of online freedom, but would actually choose more restraint when given the choice.
As Threads continues to grow, we’re left with several open questions. Some have easy answers. Will Threads become less lame? Absolutely. Cringe can be overcome. Does it matter that Threads is lame for their profitability or user growth? Probably not. But other questions are harder to predict.
How much will the vibes on Threads converge on Twitter vibes, vs keeping Instagram’s vibes? Will Threads ever capture Twitter's vitality and verve? Was Twitter’s central role because of the looser moderation style, or can that importance be recreated with a harsher moderation style? Will we ever have a single ‘online town square’ again, or will social media fracture into competing separated networks? Does lameness matter towards becoming a town square? That’s what we’re all waiting to find out.
In so much as it makes sense to think about a ‘Replacement’ - Twitter might not be replaced as much as fractured.
It’s also possible that the relationship with Instagram means that Threads will permanently have a little bit of Instagram’s style influencing it.
Actually objective this time, in a financial sense
As a visual medium, it just seems more inherently brand friendly than Twitter