If Meta can succeed in capturing some of this peak-Twitter magic, while avoiding late-stage Twitter’s struggles, the company will perhaps even reclaim some of the cultural gravity that it squandered a decade ago when Facebook took its turn toward crazy-uncle irrelevance. But can Meta possibly succeed in building a saner, nicer Twitter?
Breaking news can spread quickly, as can clips that are funny in an original or strange way—but these innocuous trends feel serendipitous, like a rainbow spanning storm clouds. To reach the Twitter masses, conspiracy, demagoguery, and cancellation are much more likely to succeed. The result is a Faustian bargain for our networked era: trusting the wisdom of crowds to identify what’s interesting can create an intensely compelling stream of shared content, but this content is likely to arrive drenched in rancor.
The obvious way Meta can attempt to escape this bargain is by moving Threads away from retransmission-based curation and toward algorithmic ranking. This will give the company more control over which discussions are amplified, but, in doing so, they will also lose the human-powered selectivity that makes Twitter so engaging.
If we look past this narrow discussion of Threads’ challenges, however, a broader question arises: Why is it so important to create a better version of Twitter in the first place? Ignored amid the hand-wringing about the toxic turn taken by large-scale conversation platforms are the many smaller, less flashy sites and services that have long been supporting a more civilized form of digital interaction.
“The Internet has become the ultimate narrowcasting vehicle: everyone from UFO buffs to New York Yankee fans has a Website (or dozen) to call his own,” the journalist Richard Zoglin wrote in 1996. “A dot-com in every pot.”
We’ve gone from Zoglin’s dot-com in every pot to the social-media age’s vision of every pot being filled with slop from the same platforms.