A Review of the Threads Network So Far

I’ve been spending time on Meta’s new social media platform since it launched. This is just a quick review of Threads network so far, keeping in mind that any assessment is, at best, preliminary.

The Twitter Exodus

Although I’ve used Twitter for years, I’ve never been an avid user. I officially abandoned (though didn’t pull down) my Twitter account because Elon Musk, the firm’s CEO, ultimately said and did too many sleazy and stupid things to countenance its continued usage. After a while, I just started feeling tainted by the place.

That said, I can’t say I’ll never go back if it changes and, unlike so many others who left, I cast no judgements on anyone who has stayed. After all, some people’s livelihoods and social standing are deeply woven into that network. I’m just glad not to be among them.

Now There’s Threads

Threads is, of course, the Twitter clone that Meta’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to create in order to take advantage of Twitter’s well-publicized financial failings and its CEO’s seemingly endless addiction to destroying his own personal brand. It’s a shame that Musk, who successfully runs Tesla and SpaceX, couldn’t get out of his own way with Twitter, but that’s been covered virtually everywhere else on the Internet so there’s no point in getting into it here.

What’s my opinion of Threads? Well, it’s okay. It has a certain energy and simplicity I like, and I suspect there will be features added that will make it better over the next several months. But it can also be deeply frustrating.

The Good

The unTwitter

There are two very good things about Threads. First, it isn’t Twitter, the single characteristic that is most attractive to users. Second, Meta made it almost embarrassingly easy to sign up if you already have an Instagram account. Yes, you have to download an app from the Google store, but that’s a snap for most of us. From there, it’s just a matter of hitting a button if you already have the Instagram app on your phone.


Threads also has the virtue of being simple to use, especially if you’ve used Twitter before. At the bottom of the screen, there are only five icons:

  • Home
  • Search
  • Post (aka, New Thread),
  • Activity (the heart)
  • Your profile

Below each post, are just four icons:

  • Like (another heart),
  • Reply (a speech balloon icon)
  • Repost (circular arrows)
  • Pointer (mostly for sharing the post).

Easy enough for anyone with a modicum of social media experience.

The Bad

The Flood

So, what’s bad about Threads? Remember when I said it was simple? Well, it’s arguably too simple in that it lacks some of the more popular features of Twitter, such as Trending, DMs and Lists. A lot of people rely on these to help tame the torrent of information that washes over them as they scroll posts from hundreds or thousands of people.

The Monotony

Because of the flood of posts of all sorts, many of which you may have no interest in, you wind up with a lot of crap in your feed. I think this is probably the main reason people have left the service for now.

Taming the Feed

However, it is possible to “tame the algorithm” that drops posts into your feed. You just need to use the Mute, Hide and Unfollow buttons.

If you Mute the post of someone you follow on Threads, you won’t see their threads or replies in your feed, but they won’t know you muted them and you’ll still be following their profile.

If you Hide a post, however, then all you’re doing is hiding that one post. You’ll see other posts by that person as long as you don’t Mute them.

Unfollow, of course, mean you don’t get that person’s posts anymore unless the algorithm decides otherwise based on whatever arcane logic is programmed into it.

So, What’s Next for Threads?

My guess is that Threads will launch new features such as a chronological feed restricted to people you actually follow, the ability to send direct messages, a better search function (that may or may not require hashtags), a “trending” list, etc.

In the shorter term, here’s what seems to be on tap.

Will Threads Survive?

Some are already asking if Threads will survive long term. After all, there was a dramatic decline in usage after an initial spike. The following graph is from SimilarWeb:

What’s seldom reported is that a short-term spike and then decline was almost certain to the happen because of the way the app was launched. People were curious, came and poked around a bit, then decided whether or not they wanted to devote some real time and energy to it. A lot didn’t.

But now that they’re signed up, many will return occasionally to see how things are progressing. Threads will be smart if it launches the upcoming new features in a strategic but well publicized way. I think that over the next year, those usage lines will start to climb, especially as we move further into the next U.S. election cycle.

Meta has plenty of time and money. Threads won’t go anywhere over the short-term, and I doubt it’ll go the way of Google+ over the the long term. Social networks is what Meta does, and it has a lot of experience, skills, money and existing networks from which to draw.

Will Threads Be Diverse and Zesty But Still Civil Enough?

The Danger of Echo Chambers

The biggest threat I see is the problem with many social networks these days: the reality-warping echo-chamber effect. For now, at least, the “libs” own Threads. I don’t think I’ve seen a single pro-Trump or even pro-GOP thread.

I’m sure part of that is that the algorithm is feeding me more left-wing stuff because it discerns I’m not a fan of the neo-fascist types like DeSantis. But a left-wing feed is not ultimately what I want. Rather, I want a politically balanced but thoughtful and evidence-based point of view in my feed, and over time Meta will make a bundle it can write and publicize a good algorithm that provides this balance. Along the way, that balance would also promote the social good.

Consider Partnerships with Content Providers

One interesting thing that Elon Musk has done recently is start to pay some of Twitter’s chief content providers. Meta should watch how this turns out and, if there are any virtues to it, it should consider following suit.

The danger is that you wind up paying people who are just good at lighting people’s hair on fire with limbic-system-hijacking, made-for-outrage posts. That can be “fun” in the short-term but it causes all kind of social turmoil, increases the work of content moderators, and chases away advertisers.

So, my recommendation for Meta (not that anyone there cares a fig for my opinions) is that they focus on creating constructive but civil and energetic discourse. Aside from writing a community-enhancing rather than click-inducing algorithm, perhaps one way to do that is through partnerships with Medium, Substack, WordPress and others, places rich with thought leaders who have built-in audiences. It’s possible that ActivityHub, described below, will make such partnerships easier.

The Potential Beauty of Federation

On ActivityPub and Threads

What’s ActvityPub?

There’s something called ActivityPub, new standard for social networking that is reportedly more open and user-centric. Here’s how The Verge describes it:

It’s a technology through which social networks can be made interoperable, connecting everything to a single social graph and content-sharing system. It’s an old standard based on even older ideas about a fundamentally different structure for social networking, one that’s much more like email or old-school web chat than any of the platforms we use now. It’s governed by open protocols, not closed platforms. It aims to give control back to users and to make sure that the social web is bigger than any single company. 

What’s It Have to Do with Threads?

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram who is overseeing the Threads project, explained on the Hard Fork podcast:

[Threads] is built on the ActivityPub protocol, which is a technology that’s behind all of the Mastodon servers and apps. What that means is there are a bunch of different apps, or social networks, that can all integrate. And so you’ll be able to actually follow people who don’t even use Threads, but use these other apps, from Threads. And you’ll be able to actually follow people and their content from threads without even using that app and using other apps like Mastodon.

And I do think that decentralization — but more specifically or more broadly, more open systems are where the industry is getting pulled and is going to grow over time. And for us, a new app offers us an opportunity to meaningfully participate in that space in the way it would be very difficult for us to support an incredibly large app like Instagram. And so to lean into where the industry is going, to learn, it’s been very humbling speaking to a bunch of people in the community who look at us, unsurprisingly, with a lot of skepticism. But I do think it’s going to be fundamentally good. And I do think it’s going to translate into not philosophical, but meaningful things for creators over the long run. Like, you should be able to take your audience, if you build up an audience on Threads — and if you decide to leave Threads, take your audience with you. And theoretically, over time, we should be able to support use cases like that that really empower creators and, I think, lean into what creators are going to demand and expect over time.

Power to the People…Maybe

So, it’s possible that, despite considerable skepticism from parts of the so-called fediverse, Threads could help make these open protocols mainstream, making social media platforms potentially a lot more diverse.

In the end, we’ll see. The fediverse may be the future, a place where many of the original utopian ideals of the Internet are finally achieved. If not, well, it wouldn’t be the first time social media let us down. But if it is, then the Web might be a much better place over the next 20 years than it has been over the last 20.

Dum spiro spero

How Networks Cause Reality Wars

The Virtues and Vices of Networks

Networks have a lot of virtues. Your personal neural net allows you to think. The Internet allows you to enjoy an astonishing array services and communications. Networks of fabric clothe you. Networks of roads and airports enable fast, cheap travel.

I could go on but you get the idea.

On the other hand, networks can also cause problems: sometimes fatal ones. In fact, they are largely responsible for the “culture wars” (which I think are more accurately defined as “reality wars”)  causing widespread social conflict to the point of weakening or even destroying democracies.

The Problem with Intelligence

When the network of your brain meets the Internet, we get some terrific things… and some downright dangerous ones.

Jeff Hawkins, the author of A Thousand Brains, explains why this happens. It boils down to language, especially written language.

Our brains can believe stuff that isn’t true. This is especially the case when we’re talking about things that we haven’t directly experienced. After all, mammals’ brains were originally evolved to make sense of their own experiences. Only via language are we humans able to communicate the details of our experience to others.

This is a powerful tool for survival. Imagine our ancestors being able to tell one another in detail about where the tree with the ripest fruit is, about which times of day they could avoid the lions stalking prey at the river bank, or about the best ways to craft a bow and arrows.

No doubt humans have always used language to lie, as well. But lying to others when in a small nomadic tribe will typically be a limited affair, affecting small groups of people who know one another well and have shared most of the same experiences.

These days it’s a different story. Lies can be quickly shared with millions of people who have little ability to verify the facts as presented. This can lead to widespread belief in fabrications, flawed understandings, and convoluted conspiracy theories.

The Truth of Pocket Pink Pachyderms

Let’s say you’ve read on some blog that there is a species of salmon-colored elephants you can hold in the palm of your hand. “Really?” you think. “Too weird!”

The blog goes into detail about how some elephant experts spliced the DNA from Borneo pygmy elephants with the modified RNA of pot-bellied pigs, and how there are rich women in Indonesia who keep them in jewel-adorned bird cages as status symbols.

“Huh,” you think. “That seems way too detailed to be bogus.”

So you Google it and sure enough there’s a YouTube personality telling you they have a good friend who owns one of the tiny elephants and just adores it.

Yes, there’s a fact-checking website that says the tiny elephants are a hoax, but you don’t believe such websites because they’re all controlled by the mainstream media. You never believe anything from the MSM. You believe in real people on the Internet.

Speaking of which, you found another YouTuber who shares your views on many issues and says he personally saw one of the tiny pink elephants. He even shows a video of one of them (though another YouTube watcher claims the creature is just a newly born aardvark, a claim that sounds like sheer sour grapes to you).

Pretty soon you’re part of a private social media channel where people discuss the nefarious black market trade in these adorable creatures. Yet governments are doing nothing to stop this trade. Why not?  There must be an international cover up!

You have not personally seen the exquisite but vulnerable salmon-colored elephants in the flesh, but some people you know strongly believe in “pocket pachyderm” rights and are lobbying to make them legal service animals they can bring on airplanes.

This Is Your Brain on Memes

The pocket pink elephant is just an example of how memes get started and spread. Memes are ideas that spread from from brain to brain much as viruses spread from body to body. That is, they spread quickly, sometimes even exponentially, in groups that are susceptible to them.

Memes carry cultural ideas, but sometimes these ideas are based on false premises. That’s where the trouble lies. Hawkins writes, “On its own, a brain will inexorably move toward more and more accurate models of the world. But this process is thwarted, on a global scale, by viral false beliefs.”

Dangerously Different Realities

We’ve already witnessed some of the dangers this brings. The events of January 6th were largely the result of passionate people believing that there was massive fraud during the 2020 presidential election despite an absence of evidence of the sort that could convince judges that those claims were legitimate enough to be worth investigating.

Although most Americans didn’t believe in the so-called Big Lie, millions did.  This conflict of beliefs among people–who have no personal experiences of events and yet form strong opinions on whether or not those events occurred–is a danger to civil society. And, it allows politicians to play on those beliefs in order to maintain and strengthen political power, even if they themselves don’t truly hold those beliefs.

After all, pols can use the strategy of false beliefs to garner more votes, more campaign funding, and greater support for their agendas. This becomes a negative feedback loop in which false beliefs provide support for politicians and other stakeholders (for example, media outlets that sell advertising), who in turn reinforce those beliefs.

Then these beliefs become so widely shared that certain voters demand their leaders express those beliefs. And on it goes, a vicious cycle of belief in things that never happened and yet must be voiced if one wishes to continue to be viewed as a loyal member of a given group.

Networks and New Technologies

This problem is built into the nature of human language and cognition. But it is magnified by the Internet and other networks (e.g., television and radio).

Unless we address this dynamic, things are only going to get worse thanks to generative AI. Those technologies will make it ever easier to for people to mislead others as AI-fabricated photos, videos and audio to become pervasive.

We are, after all, designed to believe our eyes and ears. When we get ever more high quality video and audio fabrications spread over the global network, our reality wars may further intensify.

So, What Are You Gonna Do?

How do we avoid these reality wars? That’s among the most important questions of our age. Although I don’t hold the answers, here are some ideas to think about:

  • Ensure that all fact-checking organizations cite their sources, that assessments are reviewed by balanced editorial committees, and that the public can easily review methodologies and, where possible, sources. These systems can’t and won’t appease every fact-denier that comes along, but they help demonstrate the legitimacy of their analyses.
  • Use technologies such as blockchain to corroborate the authenticity of media sources. This remains difficult to do well, and associations between blockchain technologies and the vagaries of cryptocurrencies do not endear blockchains to the public at large. But over time, blockchains may serve useful role here.
  • Require that all products of generative AI technologies contain impossible or very difficult to remove identifiers that they are fabrications. And develop fake-spotting technologies that are easily used by anyone.
  • Require social media companies to ensure everyone gets at least a chance at a balanced perspective by modifying their link recommendation engines.
  • Require that this topic of how the mind works amid networks to be covered in schools as one major component of digital literacy.
  • Continue to use popular media to educate people about the dangers involved. Movies and documentaries can ultimately make people more aware of how false narratives and fake news works.

Seeing Things Differently

I’m not suggesting that everyone can or should hold the same positions on political or social issues. To a large degree, people can share most of the same realities and yet hold contrary opinions about them.

In fact, competing points of view are essential to the health of a working democracy.

But we need to at least agree on the fundamental facts themselves when it comes to major issues. From there, we can debate the significance of those facts and how they should addressed.

We also need to forge updated cultural attitudes toward politicians. Yes, it’s a trope that politicians lie. But in our current age, lies are more dangerous than ever before. We need to hold them to a higher standard of honesty than in the past. In fact, the 2022 mid-term elections in the United States suggests that this may be happening.

Networks are a fundamental reality, and the Internet is going nowhere barring some global catastrophe. We’ve got to figure out how to use it more wisely. Otherwise, it’ll tear us apart rather than knit us together.

Featured image from Grandjean, Martin (2014). "La connaissance est un réseau". Les Cahiers du Numérique 10 (3): 37-54. DOI:10.3166/LCN.10.3.37-54. Graph representing the metadata of thousands of archive documents. Wikipedia.

Web3 Will Finally Get the Internet Right…Right?

It’s hard for someone who watched the gorgeous clusterfucks of Web 1.0 and 2.0 to get starry-eyed about Web3 (or Web 3.0, or whatever we’re calling it this week).

But a daily dose of cynicism is among the sundry bitter pills that older generations take with their morning coffee. You know, to stay regular.

So, I wanted to use this post as a reason to give the W3 champions the benefit of the doubt and educate myself better about the latest “new and improved” world wide reticulum.

Blockchains: Ledgers for Liberté!

Many of the folks espousing blockchain and cryptocurrency are enthusiastic to the point of mania, seeing the tech as pivotal to forging a brave new Web3 world. Most other people are, however, blockchain agnostic or just plain apathetic. It seems like too much trouble to figure out how the damned thing works. (Then throw NFTs into the mix and you have a whole new level of bafflement.)

So let’s indulge in some obligatory but necessarily incomplete descriptions before we continue.

WTF Is a Blockchain?

A blockchain is a glorified ledger.  It records debits, credits, and closing balances. The magic word is “transactions.”

If you’re old enough to remember balancing a checkbook, then it’s a lot like that, except it’s digital. And somehow going to save the world.

So it’s a spreadsheet? Kind of. Maybe database is more accurate. The data are stored in virtual “blocks” that are virtually “chained” together. Thus, of course, the name.

Bored yet? Hang on. That chain thing? In theory, you can’t break or modify it. So, the database can’t be changed. Fraud is, therefore, tough, and you don’t need some trusted third party to vouch that everything is on the up and up. No traditional contracts and middlemen. In that sense, it’s decentralized. It’s all about the network, baby.

One common trope is that it’s tech forged by libertarian nerds who hate big government, big business and bureaucracies in all their nefarious forms. Therefore, we wind up with an amalgamation of something that pushes all their hot buttons: software plus finance plus ciphers plus decentralization plus implicit political ideology.

So, no, not a sexy look.

But make no mistake. Blockchain is not just for geeks. Not anymore. In fact, whole industries have bought into it. For example, energy companies use it to build peer-to-peer energy trading platforms so that homeowners with solar panels can sell their excess solar energy to neighbors.

Therefore, blockchain becomes solar chic.

Cryptocurrency Runs on Blockchains

Blockchains and cryptocurrencies aren’t synonymous, but they often go hand in hand. Cryptocurrencies are digital money that’s kept secure via cryptography so there’s no counterfeiting them. Most of these currencies are housed on decentralized systems where financial records are maintained and transactions are verified via blockchains.

Got it? Blockchains are the motors that make cryptocurrencies run.

A Very Short History of Cryptocurrencies

The first and best known cryptocurrency, Bitcoin (or BTC), is part of a longish history with its own mythology. The second most common and well known cryptocurrency is ether, or ETH, which is based on Ethereum technology. But these are just the big guns. Other currencies have been popping up like Mario mushrooms after a virtual rainfall. In fact, there are now more than 12,000 cryptocurrencies.

To keep things succinct, I’m just going to present a timeline that’s a combination of what’s on Greekforgeeks, CoinMarketCap and Wikipedia.

A Cryptocurrency Timeline

1991: Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta introduce blockchain technology to time-stamped digital documents, making them “tamper-free”

2000: Stefan Konst publishes his theory of cryptographic secured chains

2004: Hal Finney introduces a digital cash system that keeps the ownership of tokens registered on a “trusted” server

2008: Mystery person Satoshi Nakamoto comes up with the concept of “distributed blockchain,” which provides a peer-to-peer network of time stamping

2009: Satoshi Nakamoto releases the famed white paper on the subject of bitcoin

2014: Various industries start developing blockchain technologies that don’t include cryptocurrencies 

2015: Ethereum Frontier Network is launched, and along come smart contracts and dApps (for decentralized applications)

2016:  Someone exploits a bug in the Ethereum DAO code and hacks the Bitfinex bitcoin exchange.

2019: Amazon announces its Managed Blockchain service on AWS

2021: In 2021, a study by Cambridge University determines that bitcoin used more electricity than Argentina or the Netherlands. El Salvador becomes the first country to make bitcoin legal tender, requiring all businesses to accept the cryptocurrency.

2022: The University of Cambridge estimates that the two largest proof-of-work blockchains, bitcoin and ether, together use twice as much electricity in one year as the whole of Sweden. The Central African Republic is the second nation to make bitcoin legal tender.

Raise a Glass to the WWW 3.0

Okay, with all the crypto and blockchain out of the way, let’s get back to Web3.

(Oh, wait, I forgot NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which are like one-of-a-kind digital objects that can be worth big money as collectables. These seem insane to me, which probably means they’ll play some pivotal economic role in the future).

These are the chief technologies and implied principles of Web3. As with the previous two iterations the Web, the advocates for Web3 argue that just they want to make the world a better place (even if they happen to make a killing along the way).

The main argument against the status quo is that our current systems are too centralized and corporatized. Financial institutions want to control money, governments want to control legal frameworks, and the biggest tech companies want to control data. Daniel Saito sums it up well here:

The problem with this system is that is leads to inequality and injustice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. The powerful get more power while the powerless are left behind. The web 3.0 economy, on the other hand, is based on a decentralized system. This means that there is no central authority or institution that has control over the system. Instead, it is a network of computers that are all connected to each other.

This makes me smile and sigh. Meet the new techno-idealist, same as the old techno-idealist.

Taking a More Skeptical Approach

Does anyone really believe that the venture capitalists are funding this stuff for the good the humanity? Do we really expect, sticking with an example that Saito uses in his article, that the Nimbies are going away and making room for high-speed rail just because someone’s throwing bitcoins at the project?

At the same time, hope springs eternal. I truly want to think that these technologies will make things better in some ways. Maybe we can avoid a certain amount of corruption, fraud, and concentration of power through blockchains. I want to believe.

But there’s a darker side as well, even leaving aside the horrendous amounts of carbon-producing energy that cryptocurrencies consume in an era of global warming. In the article “Shifting Crypto Landscape Threatens Crime Investigations and Sanctions,” the authors note:

A …. potential cause for concern is the shift away from centralized exchanges, which are required to conduct identify checks for customers, to decentralized exchanges like dYdX and Uniswap, which is estimated to be the largest such exchange. Decentralized exchanges rely on peer-to-peer systems to operate. This means that several computers serve as nodes in a larger network, in contrast to centralized exchanges that are operated by a single entity. Decentralized exchanges make it easier for traders to anonymously buy and sell coins; most such exchanges do not currently comply with “know your customer” laws, which means that it can be cumbersome for government officials to identify the parties involved in cryptocurrency transactions. Because these exchanges are not run by a single entity, they can be exceedingly difficult to police and lack the sanctions-enforcement mechanism of more centralized exchanges.

Look, people are people. The worst ones want to accrue and maintain power at the expense of others. To the extent that Web3 makes this less likely, good.

To the degree it reduces accountability, however, we could wind up with greater concentrations of power. Power that can’t be changed–even theoretically–at the voting booth. Careful what you wish for.

Stay Hungry and Hopeful…But Also Skeptical

I like webs and networks (and wouldn’t have a blog called The Reticulum otherwise). I think networks are fundamental to the universe whereas hierarchies are only emergent.

So, to the degree we can move in the direction of efficient and effective networks, I’m all in. But don’t ask me to believe that Web3 is going to solve the world’s ills via the mechanics of blockchain and crypto. It won’t. The best we can hope for is movement in the direction of a fairer, more just and saner world free of power-hoarding, dangerous-tech-wielding dictator types. (We’re looking at you, Vladimir)

Free markets absolutely have their place. So do collectives. Ultimately what we want are socioeconomic and technical systems that allow us to find the right balance, one that keeps the network from stumbling into disastrous chaos on one hand or frozen intractability on the other hand. Both spell doom.

Those are, after all, the lessons of complexity theory, but that’s for another post.