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We Don’t Need a New Twitter

In July, Meta announced Threads, a new social media service that was obviously designed to steal market share from Twitter (which I still refuse to call X). You can’t blame Meta for trying. In the year or so that’s passed since Elon Musk vastly overpaid for the iconic short-text posting service, Twitter has been struggling, its cultural capital degrading rapidly alongside its infrastructure.

Meta’s plan with Threads is to capture the excitement of Twitter without all the controversy. Adam Mosseri, the executive in charge of Threads, recently said they were looking to provide “a less angry place for conversations.” His boss, Chris Cox, was more direct: “We’ve been hearing from creators and public figures who are interested in having a platform that is sanely run.”

Can Meta succeed with this plan to create a nicer Twitter? In my most recent article for The New Yorker, published earlier this month, I looked closer at this question and concluded the answer was probably “no.” At the core of Twitter’s ability to amplify the discussions that are most engaging to the internet hive mind at any one moment is its reliance on its users to help implement this curation.

As I explain in my piece:

The individual decision to retweet or quote a message, when scaled up to millions of active users, turns out to produce an eerily effective distributed selection process. A quip or observation that hits the Internet just right can quickly spark an information cascade, where retweets spawn more retweets—the original message branching exponentially outward until it reaches, seemingly all at once, an extensive readership.

This cybernetic approach to selecting trends embeds a Faustian bargain: it will generate engagement, but this engagement will be inevitably biased toward negativity and rancor, as in the game of initiating information cascades, the more charged missives are more likely to succeed. Given the reality of these techno-dynamics, my conclusion is that Threads will not succeed with its mission. It can make its platform less angry by relying more on algorithms than humans to figure out what to share, but the result will be a more sanitized and boring experience, like a text-based Instagram feed, full of anodyne comments and bland influencer drivel.

In the second half of my piece, I turn my attention to the bigger question: should we care? In other words, is it important that the internet host a successful global conversation platform on which hundreds of millions of people gather to discuss anything and everything on a common massive feed? I’ll point you toward my full article for my detailed examination of this issue, but if you’re a longtime reader of my newsletter, you can likely already guess where I’ll end up.


In other news: The recent launch of the new spiral-bound version of my Time Block Planner was a big success. The positive feedback I’ve been receiving has been gratifying. If you’re still interested in learning more, I want to point you toward this recent podcast episode in which I provide a detailed overview of time blocking and the new planner, and then provide some advanced tips for getting the most out of a blocking discipline.

12 thoughts on “We Don’t Need a New Twitter”

  1. Hi Cal, thanks for sharing this; great stuff as always.

    I agree with your points. My related question: How do these dynamics apply to Mastodon?

    Mastodon is algorithm free and, so far, eschews the “Quote Post” feature. And with instances (federated), each one seems to be, or can feel like, a smaller niche-focused forum or network.

    So Mastodon may avoid the rancor of Twitter’s mass-comms (like Threads’ goal), yet it may also avoid the anodyne banality Threads seems destined for.

    What do you think? Thanks!

  2. I totally agree with the point being made in this article. People want to make a statement and express opinions on these platforms, and that in itself will create reactions from those who disagree. If you add the fact that the more controversial the statement is, and the more engagement it will create, users will always be tempted to write words that will create strong reactions, just to get more views or retweets. That’s the problem with the attention economy: if you want to get heard, you have to attract attention, and the means to attract attention will never end up creating a a calm or neutral platform.

  3. There were toxic discussions in mailing lists 30-35 years ago, and in web 1.0 forums 25 years ago and then on digg, etc. I can find toxic comments on Hacker News today and in the ArsTechnica forums, etc etc. Moving away from “mass social media” to smaller communities will not reduce this issue.

  4. Great article. ‘Global conversation’ platforms such as Twitter strike me as manifesting the dream of globalisation at its peak. But we’ve moved past that world – cue, accordingly, disillusionment with such platforms.

  5. Twitter fries my brain. I hated Twitter before they got into censorship mode. I still hate Twitter.

    The ultra short posting format encourages zingers over coherent thought. Putting comments on posts into the feed of the commenter creates an “information” overload even if you just follow a half dozen people.

    I hope Elon Musk’s foray into Twitter doesn’t lose him too much money. SpaceX is rather cool.

  6. I keep returning to the idea that at their core, the digital socials are concerned with a DIY segregation, enabling users to never be met with anything unfamiliar or uncomfortable. And it’s proved so popular, that users wish to replace their physical gated communities with metaphysical gated communities, expecting the same enabling from schools and news media in real life of only ever meeting with what’s familiar and comfortable already. All of which stifles what evolution to come of firsthand experience and lessens what those self-contained might offer the world beyond their reach as much as it blocks out the mass of reality outside the gates. The one thing everyone in the English-speaking world seems to agree on is that the most offensive thing in all of culture is to not have one’s fantasies indulged.

  7. I agree with all points in the article, especially the sentiment ‘Should we care?’

    In addition to the persistent negativity found on the big social media sites, there is also the fact that this form of engagement involves others deciding for the individual what is important to them, what they are going to pay attention to, and what they are allowed to see (either directly, as in the case of social media employees censoring posts and adding ‘acceptable’ messages for viewers, or the software handling of posts and comments). By contrast, the idea of people engaging with smaller sites, podcasts etc. involves the individual choosing what is important and meaningful to them and consciously deciding to spend time in those areas, and with those people.

    The Meta goal of providing ‘a less angry place for conversations’ sounds like censorship to me. I suspect most people are not interested in more censorship, and it is well known that Facebook already employs a sizeable staff to do this.

    A final note that I very much liked this analogy, and the poetic choice of words, in the New Yorker article:
    ‘these innocuous trends feel serendipitous, like a rainbow spanning storm clouds’.

  8. I think Meta’s plan with Threads is to gain access to their own proprietary textual dataset so they can train their own Large Language Models at least as much, if not more so than it is for them to compete with Twitter.

  9. Hi Cal, your content is excellent! I’ve been trying to check out your old blog posts on this platform. It’s a little difficult, though. At the bottom, there is an option to click “Next”, which uploads the blog posts immediately adjacent. There is also a “1,2,3…”. The problem is that each page number only gives access to the two pages immediately adjacent. So, for instance, to get to page 27, users are required to load pages 1-26.

    Is there an easy fix that you would be willing to do? It would make the middle pages much more accessible.

    Thanks for your consideration!

    Thanks for your consideration

  10. Cal, I agree another social media platform is a big no thank you from me. I think the “Twitter (or X) falling apart narrative” is being overblown because a lot of people in the media hate Elon. It seems to be as powerful as ever with regards to news/sports/weather and the first place people go to comment on news/sports/weather, etc. The one positive is that the excessive banning of people for expressing differing political opinions straying from the main stream media narrative seems to be going away. We’ll see if Threads can gain any traction but I don’t trust anything Zuckerberg puts out there at this point, I don’t know how you could. Both platforms get in the way of the deep life so I’ve decreased my Twitter time over the last couple years anyhow.


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