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Key Takeaways:

  • Threads, the new social media app released by Facebook’s Meta, is the hottest place on the web this week, but hidden behind the cultural shift is an architectural one: Threads is intended to become part of the “fediverse” by integrating the ActivityPub protocol, which has the potential to “rewire the entire social fabric of the internet”.
  • ActivityPub enables the social web to be bigger than any single company, and allows for portability of social graphs and content from one instance to another.
  • Brands should be aware of this shift towards open standards rather than platform lock-in, as it could allow for the preservation and transferability of valuable follow graphs, and the ability to set personal and community-level content moderation standards – changing the way organisations and institutions think about social media.

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta temporarily stepped aside from its metaverse baggage and released Threads: “an app built by the Instagram team for sharing with text…[and] a new, separate space for real-time updates and public conversations”.

A new Twitter, in other words.

The app racked up 100 million sign-ups within a few days (helped in no small part by the ease of porting followers and profile information from Instagram) making it easily the fastest growing consumer application, easily surpassing ChatGPT’s recent record. And the app isn’t even live in the EU and China yet.

Meanwhile on the internet’s longer-standing “digital town square,” Twitter, the opposite is happening –  with traffic declining on even the most popular accounts, and overall Twitter traffic experiencing a 5% decrease week-on-week before Threads even launched. (It was down 11% year on year for the same period.)

It’s certainly no coincidence that Threads launched when it did. Instagram head Adam Mosseri is on-record as saying that the “volatility” of Twitter as a (now-private) corporation and as a platform contributed to the decision to release an alternative on an accelerated timescale.

That volatility is well-documented, being one of the biggest stories in tech over the last year. Twitter’s waning popularity – at times gradual, at other times rapid – has been surrounded and precipitated by mass layoffs and bizarre, sudden changes in policy. For example, not-CEO-in-name-but-clearly-CEO-in-nature Elon Musk recently decided to limit how many tweets people can view, and how they can view them – apparently in an attempt to prevent data scraping. (The real reason was likely an internal systems issue that was rebranded to avoid embarrassment.)

“[This] was the social-media equivalent of Costco implementing a 10-items-or-fewer rule, or a 24-hour diner closing at 7 p.m.- a baffling, antithetical business decision for a platform that depends on engaging users (and showing them ads) as much as possible,” commented The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel at the time.

This retail comparison is especially relevant because, for better and for worse, Twitter has been synonymous with “the platform every business uses to make announcements” for a long time. And while fashion has tended to embrace more visually-geared platforms like Instagram in the main, this episode rapidly exposed how risky it is for consumer-facing organisations to centralise their comms – whether they’re sales announcements and new product drops, or EU policy announcements – on a single platform that’s subject to the whims of a single person.

Other reasons for Twitter’s decline are more insidious. For one, compared to other platforms that deploy strict content moderation standards, Twitter is now essentially the Wild West when it comes to content. It’s become known as the place where there is little being done about disinformation, racism, and hostility to LGBTQ+ users in particular. Also, as per Reuters, a significant contributor to a decline in engagement is likely the increase in “not safe for work” (NSFW) content being posted and / or elevated by Twitter’s most active users – something that most advertisers are not keen to put their names anywhere near.

So it’s understandable that many people have been quietly, or vocally, waiting for an alternative to troubled Twitter. But until this week this sentiment had not really coalesced into action. When Musk took control of Twitter in October last year, some fled to Mastodon, which is the poster child for a decentralised social network, made up of different servers (or instances), each with its own moderators and users who can interact with each other’s posts through the process of federation. Bluesky Social, a similar platform, uses its own open source protocol and remains in invite-only beta, while Mastodon uses ActivityPub and is open to sign-ups as well as embracing popular third-party clients that were unceremoniously kicked off Twitter not long after Musk took the helm.

Now, ActivityPub is a name that fashion should become familiar with. Because it’s the reason that this particular platform shift might have a deeper meaning than just audience and brand migration – because on top of being clearly the most viable platform for consumers and celebrities to quickly and easily migrate to, Threads is intended to become part of the “fediverse” in the future, by integrating ActivityPub and allowing the single Threads instance (with its hundreds of millions of users) to federate and interoperate with Mastodon and other networks built on top of ActivityPub.

ActivityPub has the potential to “help rewire the entire social fabric of the internet” according to The Verge. The protocol aims to ensure that the social web is bigger than any single company, with one of the most-cited benefits being the idea that social graphs (the map of your followers, following) and even content can be ported from one instance to another.

The Verge explains: “If our current social system was decentralised, you’d be able to post a picture on Instagram and I could see it and comment on it in the Twitter app. Your friends could read your tweets in their TikTok app. I could exclusively use Tumblr, and you could read all my posts in Telegram. Different apps would have different strengths and weaknesses, different moderation policies and creator tools, but you’d have the same set of followers and follow the same accounts no matter which platform you use. There would be no such thing as “Facebook friends” and “Twitter followers.””

From a personal perspective this sounds both convenient and pro-consumer – the latter of which is something not many people typically say in the same sentence as “Meta”. And The Interline subscribes firmly to the idea that open standards should be the foundations of the web, as long-time proponents of RSS as the best way to engage with the modern internet on your own terms. (Don’t forget to follow The Interline in your favourite RSS reader.)

From a brand perspective, the shift is deeper. Right now, many brands – inside and outside fashion – are likely to be re-evaluating their presence on Twitter, and implicit in this introspection is the idea that leaving Twitter means leaving behind years’ worth of content, engagement, and followers. No doubt some aggregation of first and third party tools will allow for the extraction of information from Twitter – on its timeline of course – but there is no easy lift and shift from a Twitter presence to a presence on Threads or anywhere else.

In some senses this will feel liberating to brand and community managers as they begin to chart the vibe of a new platform like Threads, but once that initial thrill wears off, the realisation of the sunk cost of investing heavily into a single centralised platform will likely set in.

So in this case, why is it that this Mastodon and the like have not taken off at the wider cultural level? They, after all, represent the purest distillation of the idea of ActivityPub / decentralisation in microblogging.

Frankly, using Mastodon comes with a learning curve – something that you don’t often hear about other social media sites. A weakness of ActivityPub is that it requires a bit of conceptual understanding and commitment, and, in the absence of an algorithm designed to populate your home feed with content that encourages engagement, it also takes time to discover other accounts to engage with and to begin discovering content.

But if Meta, and therefore Threads, does eventually integrate with ActivityPub, we are going to see two major changes: first, that the reputation that individuals and brands build will be able to endure beyond the platforms that host them – something that is not currently in place with Twitter.

In the event of Twitter’s discontinuation, the transfer of information and follower base becomes unfeasible. But in the federated model enabled by ActivityPub, seamless migration of user data, including follow graphs, posts, photos, and other content is unlocked. This will ensure the preservation and transferability of valuable follow graphs, and minimise disruptions in the event of any platform transitions.

The other major plus: the ability to set personal and community-level content moderation standards. With ActivityPub, users (and potentially brands) could be able to run a federated instance of social media – meaning highly curated content at individual, community, and  server level. This of course is vastly different from how Twitter operates, and is something that brands might have a significant interest in doing as it represents the ultimate in on-brand, on-model exposure. On the flipside, it obviously comes with the caveat that a single, centralised community with consistent moderation standards is always likely to be the space that the majority of potential users flock to.

Others have speculated that in the safe, curated environment, things are going to get boring in the long run. Instagram boss Adam Mosseri himself said that while politics and “hard news” would likely show up on Threads, the company wouldn’t do “anything to encourage those verticals.” And whether we like it or not, engagement with current affairs is one of the primary forces keeping people on social media – creating the persistent population that brands and advertisers then target.

So, will Threads be the new Twitter? Time will tell. But in the rush to understand the spirit and the vibe of a new forum, fashion is currently overlooking the potentially more momentous shift happening at the architectural level. With the right commitments from Meta and others, it may not matter in the long run whether Threads has legs – not if brands have the option to take their profiles with them when the next platform shift rolls around.

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