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Searching for Places of Possibility
Threads and the Promise and Peril of Online Networks
Hi there, and welcome to the 10 new subscribers who subscribed since my last newsletter. Quick reminder: I'm Kevin K. and this is the Path Nine newsletter where we explore the people, places, and practices in the future of work. It’s great to be here with you :)
I'm writing to you from a friend's house in Seattle, where my wife and I are pet/house-sitting for the week. It's our favorite time of year in Seattle, so there are no complaints assuming the weather holds up. This week, I shifted to a more topical subject: online networks. I hope you enjoy it!
Alright, let's dive in.
This week’s article is 1.9k words (7 min read). If you don’t have time to read the entire article, here are the main points that you should take away: ▶︎ Threads, a new app released by Meta, has gained significant attention, with 70 million sign-ups in just 24 hours, becoming the most rapidly downloaded app in history. ▶︎ Online networks are more critical than ever, so we need to think through the opportunities and challenges we'll face with networks. ▶︎ We don't need more social networks, we need more personal networks for genuine connections in online interactions.
This week Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, released a new app called Threads.
It’s just like Twitter, except it’s Meta.
So that’s clever (I guess).
But here's the thing: people are enamored by it.
Here are a few quick stats to reiterate that highlight this point:
70 million sign ups just 24 hours after launch
Threads becomes the most rapidly downloaded app in history
Instagram's new app was downloaded more than 30 million times in 16 hours
How'd it get so big, so fast? The simple answer is that they leveraged the 500M daily active users from Instagram (shocker!). Not to take anything away from the stats, but it's like getting called on stage at a concert and then telling everyone that 30,000 people came to see you on stage.
All that said, the hype made me wonder why so many people are so eager to try it?
Now, this won't be a post about the features that each offers, their strategic value, or a detailed analysis of their market position. If that's what you're looking for, talk to the greats like Packy McCormick or Ben Thompson — I bet they have thoughts, and they'll be much better than mine.
No, this post is about (digital) networks and how we simultaneously shape and are shaped by the networks and the spaces we inhabit, online and offline. It's about the role online networks like Twitter and Threads play in modern personal and professional culture.
Before we get into all that, let’s take a step back and look at Threads.
What is Threads?
Threads is a new app, built by the Instagram team, for sharing text updates and joining public conversations. At its core, Threads is a text-based social network. Like many networks before it, Threads allows users to post text updates and content to a network of followers. Users log in with their Instagram account and post 500-character updates that can include links, photos, and videos up to 5 minutes in length.
But that's not all it offers.
Threads offers users a fresh start.
The UI is simple, clean, and, if anything, understated.
It presents the feeling of a clean room; everything in it's right place.
For the time being, it’s free from contamination. And given how toxic most networks appear, a sense of cleanliness is invigorating.
Threads offer hope and the possibility of a new future, a future that is free from the tainted, mutated, and often cringe content that we've come to relate with most other social media platforms.
Even though Threads is nearly identical to Twitter, it's unclear what Threads wants to be. When we look at the mission statements of the major social media networks, it isn't easy to see where Threads fits:
Twitter: “to promote and protect the public conversation--to be the town square of the internet.”
LinkedIn: “connect the world's professionals to make them more productive and successful.”
Instagram: “to capture and share the world's moments.”
Threads: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. While Meta has stated that Threads is meant to be less political than Twitter, it hasn’t provided a specific mission statement.
While I planned to avoid statements and predictions about the future of Threads, I suspect it will have a strong start and may ultimately pull a subset of users away from Twitter but will eventually suffer the same fate. Early success rarely guarantees future success.
The lack of mission clarity is most concerning. Without a clear mission to guide engagement, feature development, and network development, there is only one thing left to shape the platform: people.
People shape their behavior to the norms of the people around them. Waiting to see how people act is a recipe for disaster, and a regression to the mean within the current discourse. Further, given that Threads is easier to use, I suspect the race to the bottom will happen in record time, as the adoption curve goes both ways.
For a great example of how platform can reshape discourse, peruse the content on your LinkedIn feed. Or, for those of you who wish to avoid LinkedIn at all costs, check out the curated examples found on r/linkedinlunatics to see how quickly social networks devolve cringe-worthy content factories.
As Trung Phan pointed out in his excellent essay titled Why is LinkedIn so cringe?, every social network has issues:
Facebook (misinformation), Twitter (trolls), Instagram (fake) etc. Compared to these other platforms, "cringe" is probably not the most pressing concern."
And while I'm hopeful that Threads can avoid the gravitational pull of this type of content, the lack of a clear mission statement leaves me feeling concerned, especially considering the role that online networks play in binding us, personally and professionally.
What’s clear is that Threads is subconsciously tapping into something we're all searching for: a place for possibility. Threads feels like the first day back to school; all your friends are already there, and it’s exciting to be together again.
The Ties that (un)Bind Us
The rise of remote work has morphed the way that online interactions shape our work, our lives, and our minds. Since social networks have become a place for personal and professional connections, our online presence—and our point of connection—is more important than ever.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter studied how functioning societies are underpinned by what he called "strong" and "weak" ties. Strong ties refer to our close relationships with friends, family, and even colleagues. As you might expect, weak ties refer to the more casual ties that form within our network.
A recent study found that email data among MIT's faculty showed a 38% decrease in weak ties during the pandemic, which resulted in 5100 net-new weak ties lost within 18 months. This indicates that, while social media has brought us more online, it has a larger impact on our overall social connection. We’re more online, but less connected.
The future of work will be distributed across these online networks, and so these connections play an increasingly important role in our personal and professional lives.
I can’t pretend to offer advice on how to use social media. I ghosted all social media for the better part of the pandemic, which was fantastic. I'm back now, but not everywhere, and not all at once.
But we need networks built for actual connection, not just another clone of the online networks built a decade ago.
We The People…Matter
For me and many, Twitter started as a place to meet great people, share things with people you know, and keep up with news and current trends. But those days are long gone, and here we are, fighting to stay alive as we navigate each new tool and platform that comes our way. That's just the reality of social platforms; they start out pure, and slowly erode into divisive, corrosive, punitive discussions among strangers.
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us - Marshall McLuhan
Like everything, software products and platforms can be corrupted. New products rarely change old behaviors. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that Threads would fall into the same traps that Twitter fell into.
Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, I've read countless tweets about people leaving Twitter for Bluesky and Mastadon, all in protest of Musk. (Don't get me started on the irony of using the platform you're leaving to announce your righteous departure to the latest and greatest.) And the same pattern is repeating itself with Threads.
The factions that arose during the transition seemed eager, enthusiastic, but potentially senseless. While many users did leave, others doubled down on the platform.
Those who did leave likely ported their Twitter behaviors to their new platform. And who's to say we will see a different pattern with those switching to Threads. If the behaviors are the same across platforms, at the end of the day, is there any meaningful difference between these networks? Further, what would it take to drive meaningful change?
The only way to change: if people change.
What is created on these platforms is determined not only by the UI and features, but also by the people. We, as users, have an opportunity to reshape what we want from our online social connections. The longing for something new is less about the disdain for figureheads like Elon Musk, and more about the appetite for personal social networks. Networks that mimic our real-life interactions without the posturing and cringe discourse found on Twitter and LinkedIn.
The Path to Rebuilding Personal Networks
So, is Threads the future? I have no idea. And honestly, it's not what I care about. I care about how we work and live in a world where online social networks are a core part of our existence. I care about keeping our minds sharp, building stronger relationships, and finding ways to lift each other up.
Reflecting on the social networks I've used and my experience with each, I realize they all follow a similar path: honest communication > genuine interactions > professional posturing > branding, building, and selling > trolling. That is, except for one of the OG networks: Path.
If you're not familiar with Path, let me explain.
Path was a mobile app launched in 2010 and allowed users to share personal updates with a maximum of 50 contacts. Though it eventually shut down, the ideas it embodied were way ahead of their time. Instead of asking users to follow everyone and be "friends" with thousands of people, it used constraints to its advantage, allowing users a max of 50 connections and a host of features that shared content out to other platforms, keeping you from the dreaded doom-scrolling that plagues all modern social networks.
This quote from Dave Morin says a lot about the philosophy behind Path:
"What would you expect in your home? What would you expect in your personal life? A lot of the types of content we allow people to share has direct impact on people's personal lives." - Dave Morin, Founder of Path Social
Path was really more about ego networks than social networks. If you're unfamiliar with ego networks, they're a type of network that specifically maps the connections of and from a single person's perspective.
We don't often think about it, but we each have a mini-universe. We have friends and family that connect to and through us. We know the level of connection we have with each of them. We have a mental model of how we're linked and the strong or weak ties, frequent and infrequent contact.
This is what Path understood. And this is what we need from our online networks.
So how might we rebuild personal networks with the goals of having a direct impact on people's personal lives?
I'm not going to claim to know the answer to our social media puzzle, but it's in our best interests to rethink the ways we interact with each other online.
Here are the principles I'm going to follow:
Build relationships, not followings. Our goal is to be social, which implies we should build relationships. Followings are great, but they can be shallow and fickle. Relationships grow, change, and evolve. Instead of authenticity, followings encourage the personification of personalities.
Connect, don't capture. Social media has conditioned us to focus on capturing our audience and sharing content that builds a brand. Instead, if we aim to exist and develop genuine connections through authentic content, we may find that the actual connection doesn't require such posturing.
Live, don't lie. Our ability to build relations and connections hinges on being ourselves. Too many social platforms encourage maintaining a persona or brand. It's time to ditch the lies of the persona and embrace honesty in our personal and professional communication.
If you agree, feel free to steal these. If not, drop me a comment with suggestions.
If you're enjoying Threads—and I hope you are—then keep at it. If, like me, you feel uncomfortable looking in the funhouse mirror that Meta created, I hope you feel encouraged to step away from the pressure to join yet another network. Until I feel more confident that Threads will improve the current social media traps, I plan to remain a Threads lurker.
Regardless of your feelings on the leaders, features, and culture of these products, if you're going to use them, I have one recommendation: use them to build an authentic personal network, not a social network.
It’s time our tools help us develop places for possibility, not just profit.
Until Next Time!
That’s it for this week. As always, if you like the content, please do me a favor and share it with your friends — this newsletter runs on overpriced whiskey and reader engagement.
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Thanks for reading, and see you soon,
— Kevin K.