Somewhere in the debris of our virtual lives there’s still a Friendster account with my name on it, probably a few Friendster friend requests I have still not responded to
At that time, during the dawn of the Age of Social Media, I was not aware of it but the word friend itself was being redefined. Friendster, Orkut, MySpace, Yahoo Messenger were all in the business of creating communities. Eventually, most of them disappeared into the great maw that was Facebook.
Now Meta, the company that gave us Facebook, has given us Threads, the so-called Twitter-killer app. Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, threaded (is that the right verb?) that Threads passed two million sign-ups in the first two hours. By the next day, that number had hit 30 million. An angry Elon Musk threatened to sue, accusing Threads of using trade secrets from former Twitter employees, something Meta vociferously denied.
Threads does seem rather threadbare as an idea. Callie Holtermann of The New York Times described it as “Twitter with Instagram’s fonts”. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, was unimpressed with his new Threads, tweeting, “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 7 Twitter clones.” But it has the advantage of piggybacking on our Instagram accounts so we do not have to wait for someone more privileged than us to “invite” us to join the app. Once we are on it, however, we find that like most other social media apps out there, it’s selling us the usual feel-good pills—community and conversation.
Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, said he wanted Threads to be a “friendly place” for public conversation. Zuckerberg said he wanted a “public conversations app with 1 billion+ people on it” and added that “Twitter has had the opportunity to do it but hasn’t nailed it. Hopefully we will.” Musk retaliated by cancelling his Instagram account and tweeting that it was “preferable to be attacked by strangers on Twitter, than indulge in the false happiness of hide-the-pain Instagram.”
It sounds like Threads is basically trying to get the Musk-y smell out of Twitter. But it’s amusing that Meta, itself accused of spreading misinformation and polarisation and leading us ever deeper into the rabbit hole of our prejudices by spoon-feeding us content that reinforced our biases, is now the Pied Piper who will lead us into a kinder, gentler Twitter. In reality, it’s a food fight between two tech moguls who have even offered to go at each other in a cage fight. And rather than choosing between two teams, we are really choosing between two very wealthy team owners, both of whom want to make money off us.
While everyone is discussing whether Threads, with its ready-made Instagram database of subscribers, can really blow a hole in Twitter, the larger question is what draws us by the hordes to the next shiny new thing in the app world. Remember Clubhouse? I even bought an old iPhone since it was not available on Android just so I would not be left out of the hottest conversations online. I think I attended three and have now forgotten my password.
Threads has become one more app on our crowded phones. But to what end? Now every time we think of a brilliant new thought or take a cool if slightly shaky picture, we can share it instantly on Twitter, Threads, Facebook, Instagram and half a dozen other apps. I feel I am stuck in a virtual Groundhog Day, reliving the same content over and over again—a pandemic of digital déjà vu.
All of it begs the existential question of what we are ultimately looking for online. The creators of Threads seem to think we want, as Mosseri put it, “a less angry place for conversations” where polarising issues like hard news and politics will take a back seat. That’s all very mom-and-apple-pie. Everyone wants a friendly conversation café. No one will admit to wanting a toxic water cooler.
And yet while I know many people who gripe that Elon Musk’s Twitter has become a snake pit, I know almost no one who has been disgusted enough to quit it. It’s like all the Americans who vowed to go to Canada if George W. Bush won re-election and then if Donald Trump became president. All of them are still in America as far as I know.
Some of it might be just habit. The thought of moving houses, even social media ones, is exhausting and you don’t know if your followers will follow you as well. That’s where Threads, with its inbuilt Instagram follower base, has an advantage over competitors. But the more alarming thought is that perhaps after a decade of social media, we crave that toxicity deep down. We like cute puppy dog videos but we also like to watch social media cat fights online the way Romans enjoyed watching gladiators tear each other apart in their amphitheatres. Social media taps into an old, old bloodlust. Twitter gives us the things we don’t want to admit to craving—pornographic clips, political vitriol and conspiracy theories.
I myself follow several people on social media, not because I admire them or enjoy what they post but because I like to take screenshots of what they post and share them with friends so we can all roll our eyes. The ability to take screenshots might be the greatest feature ever invented, something more of a game changer than either Twitter or Threads. Someone told me that’s called “hate follow” and I am not the only one who does it even while I piously claim I want a happier, friendlier internet.
The basic problem is that all of us have our own ideas of what an ideal water-cooler conversation on the internet should sound like and they are not necessarily compatible with each other, as anyone in a school alumni or a residents association WhatsApp group already knows. In the end, we bend each platform we are on to our own ends. Instagram was meant to post pretty pictures. But people can use it to find dates and hook-ups sometimes more successfully than on dating apps. Twitter and Threads can keep shoving content from people we don’t follow down our throats based on what the algorithm thinks we might like to see. Influencers will use every platform to plug the same products. The socially needy will want to buy followers on whatever platform they are on to feel better about themselves and keep checking their likes count. And sooner or later, someone will offer to sell us some more followers. A day after I logged on to Threads, I caught myself looking at my pending follower requests and feeling somewhat pleased and in demand till I realised most of them were just blanket-following those they followed on Instagram, they hadn’t specially chosen me. Never mind, it’s still a mini-dopamine rush to see “XYZ wants to follow you. Accept/ Decline?”
The creators of these apps claim they are trying to create community. But what they really want is to keep us trapped in their community rooms, scrolling endlessly, looking for the next fix, whether that’s cat videos or porn. Social media, even if created with the best of intentions, needs addicts more than users. And its creators know full well we are addicted to sex, drugs and catfights, not to broccoli, chia seeds and world peace.
Talking about his book Stolen Focus—Why You Can’t Pay Attention, Johann Hari said it’s like someone pouring itching powder over us all day and then leaning over to say, “You know what, you might want to learn to meditate, then you wouldn’t scratch so much.” We are creatures of negativity bias and social media has learnt all too well to tap into that.
Instead of giving us a Twitter-mukt (free) internet, Threads might just coexist with Twitter, like political parties learn to live with each other. Threads is not claiming to take us anywhere new anyway. Rather, it’s promising to take us back to a happier virtual home we had once known and loved. However, as we all know, it’s not so easy to go back home.
But at least we all have a new way to waste some more time online while sitting on the toilet.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.