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Threads & the terrible greatness of everything at once

July 8, 2023

Well, it happened. Elon took over Twitter, blew it up repeatedly through a series of befuddling product changes and self-owns, and now we have at least 3 other Twitters vying for attention. The newest entrant, Threads, has come bursting out of the gate with massive user numbers and a strong dose of millennial energy. Despite this (or maybe because of it) Threads feels like the first actually viable Twitter replacement.

Or is it?

Adam Mosseri, head of product for Instagram and Threads, posted an explanation that Threads is not going after “politics or hard news” due to the “negativity” of that subject matter. He also alluded to Facebook’s proven inability to handle such material in a responsible way.

In short: we don’t even trust ourselves to get this right, so we’re not going to try.

This makes total sense from a big tech, corporate product perspective—especially coming from a company that has a not-insignificant amount of regulatory scrutiny hanging over its head.

And yet, that decision will probably extinguish the special sauce that made Twitter so culturally impactful.

The most succinct way I’ve found to describe Twitter is the terrible greatness of everything at once. Somehow, Twitter was able to capture a cultural zeitgeist, and collect many essential niche communities into one giant pool simultaneously. It was like a massive family gathering, with old guys ranting about the government, friends cracking inside jokes, celebs promoting their latest drop, stupid ads blasting at full volume, and weird kids taking lewd selfies in the bathroom.

On Twitter, all of those random people bumped into each other every day, and all hell broke loose. This is what made it so amazing, or so horrible, depending on the moment. It wasn’t exactly real life, but it was messy like real life. And it had a real impact.

This happened because Twitter had a unique combination of product decisions, and lacked rules to enforce any specific decorum.

Software design often gets treated like graphic design: just a bunch of rectangles on a screen, or a series of buttons and inputs.

This is the wrong definition.

Software design is much more like urban planning or architecture. When you make software, you’re defining the spaces and pathways that affect people’s behavior. You create the guardrails, and then people mostly follow them. It can be a position of great power and authority.

In the aggregate, all of your decisions—large and small—add up to the vibe of a product, just like the feel of walking into a house or a building. Is it cozy and friendly? Corporate and sterile? Ugly and messy? Risky and raunchy? It depends on how it was designed.

When I’m looking at these Twitter clones, what I really want to know is: where are the creative rebels? Where are the poets and writers, the artists, the anarchists testing the limits of what’s acceptable? Where is Black Twitter? Where are the queer communities or youth activists?

These are the people who question the status quo and drive change over time. It seems like Threads doesn’t want them, because they’re going to be content-moderated and probably downranked into oblivion, unless they follow all the proper normie norms that the platform designed on purpose.

Which they won’t.

As a result, they probably won’t hang out on Threads either. A sanitized Zuckerberg property is not the place for the next generation of punk kids. Threads will be fine for exchanging silly pleasantries with your fellow 35 year-olds, posting vacation pics, and seeing stupid jokes from brand accounts. But the deeper, tougher conversations are likely going to happen somewhere else.

For a while, all of that happened in one place. It was terrible, and it was great.