Credit: Timothy R. Butler/Stable Diffusion

A Threads I Can Follow

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 11:08 PM

Meta has launched another social network, “Threads.” I signed up but already knew when I did that I wouldn’t be an active user. I hope many others will join me in not using it. I also hope it succeeds for the good of the Internet.

Ask me a year ago if I’d write “I hope [a product Meta launches] will succeed for the good of the Internet” and I would have told you that was one of those weird, “If I ever post this, you know I’m being held hostage” signals.

(I am not a hostage, for the record.)

Meta has done much to harm the Internet over the years. No single entity has succeeded more in discouraging the open, free and creative web than Facebook. Microsoft tried to lock things down and failed. Google has been more successful in positioning itself as a gatekeeper of how people find things, but still points people to other places beyond Google.

Only Facebook managed to centralize content within its own confines.

I’ve written several times now about the need to return to the open web to combat this. Blogging on our own sites yields a resilient Internet far less susceptible to censorship. In place of external control, self-hosting encourages rapid improvement and innovation. Far more happened to improve the Internet, say, from 2000-2006 than has changed of note in Facebook from 2006 to today.

Call Meta’s Threads the plot twist no one saw coming a year or two ago.

Threads’ most important feature is not what has made headlines. Those are focused on Meta’s desire to attack Twitter as Elon Musk has made a series of missteps. Meta attempting to clone its successful competitors is nothing new. Nor is Twitter even a new target for Meta.

In the old days, I’d root for Twitter in such match ups. Twitter has been more pro-open web than Meta. Even today, I far prefer Musk over Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, despite Musk’s chaos agent style. However, with chaos comes missteps and one of those unfortunate Musk missteps has made it even more of a walled garden than Facebook.

Twitter’s latest “login wall” move piles onto rejection of other open-web stakes like free (or affordable) APIs for interlinking services. If Facebook has a barbed wire fence, Musk is pushing for an electric fence around Twitter’s users.

With Twitter’s constant instability reminding users that depending on a centralized network puts your posts — or even your business, if you reach customers through social networking — at a central power’s mercy, people are thinking about whom they entrust their time and content with more than they have in the past. Meta appears ready to sing a new song of openness alien to its past to leverage this change.

Open how? Meta officially tells all new Threads users during sign up that it will adopt ActivityPub, the system that connects the decentralized social media “Fediverse” together.

The open source, decentralized Mastodon — the most popular Fediverse system thus far — has some (but not enough) traction to replace Twitter. Its complexity ensures that “not enough.” Getting an account on the Fediverse requires users to sort through a multitude of available “instances,” rather than having a central signup. That makes it more confusing. After signing up, this decentralization compounds confusion as one tries to follow other users since one typically can’t just click “follow” like on Facebook or Twitter.

Twitter, foibles and all, is simpler and simpler usually wins, even if it is bad.

Mastodon and the Fediverse have appeared to be on the edge of being an also-ran attempt, scattered with so many other failed or irrelevant networks. Cue plot twist. Once Meta turns on its Fediverse support, it will remove much of the complexity of decentralized social networking and likely become the single largest part of that confederation of systems.

Signup is dead simple using one’s existing account from Meta’s other major network, Instagram. Avoiding one of the big demotivators of a new social network, it offers to bring in one’s Instagram follows so you don’t begin with an empty feed.

A segment of Mastodon instance administrators have wanted to boycott Threads entry into the Fediverse for all the Meta negatives I outlined above. Who wants Meta to suddenly dominate the decentralized social networking sphere?

If Threads were merely a slick Twitter alternative within Facebook’s control, that would be understandable. But, if Meta does indeed flip the ActivityPub switch as promised, those who prefer Mastodon or another Fediverse system will gain the ability to interact with the vast user base Meta will bring with it from the comfort of their preferred system while Meta’s users will also be able to interact with them.

Meta may need the Fediverse to try to give its fledgling system a sense of being “stable,” but the Fediverse needs the mainstream appeal Meta can offer even more.

Meta recognizes what many alleged advocates for the open web don’t see: even the biggest social network is not big enough to defeat a weakened Twitter, but if Meta shares its toys with others, the open web has a chance to do what no single entity can.

Dollars to donuts, in a week I’ll know more Threads users than Mastodon users. I’d prefer — and intend — to keep my “alternate” home on a self-hosted Mastodon instance not Threads (I’m @trbutler@faithtree.social if you want to connect). If Threads were closed off, this coming situation would stink. But once Fediverse support turns on, those users and I will be able to connect.

The more tech savvy (or less Meta inclined) will benefit with a lively Fediverse without using a Meta product themselves, while the less tech savvy can connect in the easiest way possible. What will matter is folks like me will suddenly know a lot of Fediverse users. Who cares if they use Threads or Mastodon or something else?

In the Fediverse, a “big fish” like Threads could become the equivalent to Gmail, but that’s ok. Gmail dominates e-mail because it is an easy default and works reasonably well. Threads appears to be that for the Fediverse.

Here’s the good news: others using Gmail never has forced me to make Gmail my e-mail provider. E-mail providers talk to each other. That is the beauty of decentralization.

If Musk’s mistakes and Meta’s savvy openness-for-the-sake-of-competitive advantage help get more people on a social network that talks to the other decentralized networks, that’s a thread I’d like to follow.

Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business. He also serves as a pastor at Little Hills Church and FaithTree Christian Fellowship.

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