I was among the first few thousand Facebook users 1. Some time in the summer of 2004, my dad 2 emailed me to say that I was eligible to sign up for something called The Facebook as a way of meeting other incoming freshmen at my college. So I became an early adopter of the platform at a time when it was still for .edu domains only.

“The facebook”

That institution had also distributed a physical “facebook” of the class, just as it did physical course catalogs and registration cards. All of these would be retired during my time there, replaced by fiercely proprietary and unfriendly alternatives, but none saw a replacement with the imperial impact of The Facebook.

After signing up via a Dell tower PC, the first person who requested that I “friend” them was an acquaintance—a loose tie, someone I’d been friendly with but not exactly a friend— from a summer camp I’d attended two years earlier in New Jersey. I’d done such camps after each year of high school, and their denouements were always awkward affairs, wherein we swapped email addresses and AIM handles (but rarely if ever phone numbers 3).

It was a ritual with no corresponding reality—I kept in touch with virtually no one, even the people I excitedly exchanged a few emails with before they stopped responding. But now The Facebook promised something far stickier.

Logging into The Facebook in September 2004 let me:

  • Do precise search: Type the name of almost anyone I knew from those camps from years ago and I could instantly see everything from what classes they were taking to what music they liked. Moreover, those interests were hyperlinked—you could click say “The White Stripes” and see everyone in your network who also listed them.
  • Post on their “walls”: Almost at exactly the time my first classes began, Facebook rolled out the “wall” feature that in its earliest form was like a 1:1 digital equivalent of the dorm room door front whiteboards that everyone at my 2003 summer camp liked to use to relay messages. It was one big canvas that anyone you were friends with could edit.
  • Send messages: The Facebook allowed frictionless messaging within the site, like AIM but even better, without the clunky desktop installation. Everything happened in the browser, and it was fast.

I used Facebook 4 almost every day from 2004 to 2014. My peak year was probably 2005, when it combined to be both a class research tool, a dating application, and a way of discovering music and movies. It was the “everything app” before the iPhone made that sort of thing more difficult by encouraging smaller-scale apps.

Until 2006, when the NewsFeed fundamentally changed the experience of using Facebook and the site opened up to non-.edu domains, and 2008, when the App Store launched, Facebook was somehow both super exclusive and boundless in its ambitions. Using it felt like being in on a betting secret—you smiled in the secret knowledge and insight you had, and ironically in the splendid isolation it conferred among your growing network of connections.

Facebook becoming more public from 2006 onward dissipated this aura somewhat, but the inner glow was still so radiant that it was worth staying and posting there. This time all the way through 2016 was what I’d call social media’s “imperial era,” when it seemed like there was nothing it couldn’t replace, that it was immune to any checks on its growth, and that it’d only connect more people with time.

The end of social media’s imperial era

And yet the sun eventually sets on all empires.

My own usage tapered off after 2014 as more of my actual friends left the platform or curtailed their own usage. The platform also became overrun with ads and posts about the 2016 election, the latter a crossed Rubicon not only for Facebook but for all of social media in terms of how even casual people came to perceive it—that is, not as a friendly, fun place to hangout, but as just another flamewar-laden forum akin to the ones it’d replaced.

Indeed, 2016 was the pivotal year that inaugurated our current social era, which is defined by:

  • Massive entrenched incumbents floating unsettlingly atop a sea of political turmoil.
  • Nonstop “content” consumption that commoditizes both what’s being made and who’s making it to an almost comical degree
  • A countercurrent of standardization, led by the W3C, to weave social media into the fabric of the web itself through new protocols such as ActivityPub

No hyperscale or groundbreaking new 5 social network has so far launched after 2016. Both TikTok and Mastodon, which between them embody all three trends above, launched that year and seemingly every new network since has been a variant of one of them:

  • TikTok has what Eugene Wei has called a “purity of function as an interest/entertainment graph” aside from any social networking capacity; you can reach millions as a complete rando. Everyone from Instagram to Spotify has attempted to imitate this function by flinging “content” at you with all the immediacy of streaming, but with none of the tedium of having to consume anything in a 30-to-60-minute chunk, all while moving beyond the constraints of the unidirectional following/follower model of Twitter (i.e., you can follow someone without their permission) or the even more restrictive bidirectional one of Facebook (i.e., your “friend” has to agree to your connection request).
  • Mastodon was designed as an anti-Twitter: A completely FLOSS 6 implementation of a microblogging service that anyone could install on a server and use to connect to anyone else running the same software. No ads, no post-serving algorithms, no massive centralized server farm—Mastodon almost feels like the early Facebook, before it had any obvious future as a commercial behemoth.

While these two networks were creating new paradigms for what social media would become, Facebook and its far smaller but still-influential counterpart Twitter were coming under unprecedented scrutiny.

The 2016 US presidential election marred both of them permanently:

  • Facebook became associated with Cambridge Analytica and with fake ads saying Michael Jordan had endorsed Donald Trump.
  • Twitter became infamous as the latter’s preferred communications channel.

Their boomerization and commercialization were complete and with them those transformations, they both became like different types of bars you’d not want to visit regularly. Facebook felt like the site of constant brawls blurred into incoherence and non-reality by alcohol, while Twitter became like a rundown speakeasy, with forbidden and valuable knowledge attainable only by courting risk, not least from the abusive people within it.

Yet these two have proven very difficult to dislodge, because social media after 2016 is not friendly to newcomers, for the following reasons:

  • Regulatory scrutiny: Tighter regulations, especially in the E.U., have made the classic social media model of hovering up as much user data as possible to run ads against untenable. Meta, Facebook’s parent, has struggled in the E.U.
  • High interest rates: Startups can’t access the capital to build out the infrastructure and footprints necessary to compete with the incumbents on scale.
  • Moderation burdens: The chaos of 2016 made the toughest part of social media—moderation, which is in a sense the product of any social media provider, because it determines what you see—even tougher as platforms had to decide how to handle contentious content.
  • Network effects: Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006) had virtually no competitors when they launched. But today’s new social platforms have to dislodge people from the older sites where they’ve cultivated hundreds of even thousands of connections over the years.

Making a social network after 2016 is sort of like trying to make a desktop-first app after 2008. That was the year that both Dropbox and Spotify launched, with Windows and macOS clients as their main interfaces. Most mass-market apps of their ilk would today never target the desktop first, due to the proliferation of phones since then and the rise of web apps, but some smaller developers still focus on it. 7 In both cases, the people still trying to make it work are playing for a niche audience.

The zombie Threads

Even the hyperscale operators themselves aren’t immune.

Meta launched Threads, its purported “Twitter killer,” on July 5 and the app quickly became one of the biggest sensations in the history of the App Store and Google Play, racking up over 100 million accounts in just a week. For comparison, there are only 14 million total Mastodon accounts, accumulated over 7 years, as of this writing.

On paper, Threads has all the ingredients to vault over the hurdles detailed above:

  • It’s built on an existing social graph (Instagram) and as such people come to the platform with a built-in audience.
  • It’s backed by Meta’s extensive data center infrastructure.
  • It didn’t launch at all in the E.U., thereby avoiding regulatory scrutiny there. Writing off those hundreds of millions of users is something only a company like Meta that has so many other profits centers could afford.
  • It’s designed to de-prioritize politics and hard news, letting it preemptively avoid the heat that cooked Facebook and Twitter for a lot of people.

Meanwhile, the parade of other Twitter rivals can’t compare on these particular metrics:

  • Mastodon, my favorite of the bunch, isn’t meant to be a commercial colossus and is truly a “start from nothing” experience for a lot of people because it’s both technically daunting and has no system for importing or recommending accounts to follow. Infrastructure and speed vary widely from instance to instance.
  • Bluesky is still invite-only, which likely killed any chance it had of soaking up fleeing Twitter users en masse. It’s also a Mastodon ripoff, nominally committed to “federation” that still hasn’t happened and that won’t use the ActivityPub protocol if it does, either. It couldn’t even handle a surge in traffic on July 1, when Twitter briefly DDoS’d itself.
  • Substack Notes made it so that you signed up for the newsletter of anyone you followed, meaning you’d have inbox overload pretty quickly. It also has horrible moderation.
  • Post.news, Spoutible, and other attempts to make a centralized, commercialized Twitter clone are the most prone of all these options to encountering the post-2016 barriers to traction.

But is Threads good? Reader, it’s not even engaging. It already feels like a dead site, with a confusing UI, algorithmic feed, and heavy censorship. If any platform was going to dislodge Twitter as the favorite tool of the media and influencer classes for text based interactions 8, it was going to be this one, but even it couldn’t make it work!

Moreover, because it’s essentially just another way of interacting with the Instagram graph, Threads feels impossible to break through on for anyone who’s not already famous. There’s none of the DIY almost-meritocratic 9 ethic of Mastodon, where someone who posts funny and useful things can quickly rack up hundreds of followers. No, Threads is not really for you or I (unless you’re, like, Netflix incarnate); it’s for advertisers who wanted out of Twitter.

In her newsletter 10, Mariya Delano described the debut of Threads as “a brand-new social media platform is launched with those old hierarchies firmly rooted in place…The people who already had status on Twitter or Instagram are getting to keep that status.” It’s new, but it feels zombielike, like someone pulled some pre-2016 code out of an old file and refactored it. Low-stakes non-political posts, memes, celebrity “main characters,” highly visible follower counts—it’s all back.

Whereas in recent years the likes of Mastodon as well as the very platform where I’m posting this blog—Micro.blog—have de-emphasized metrics, algorithms, and anything that could turn social media into any kind of competition, that’s all Threads consists of. On Mastodon, I have more followers that many people who tried migrating over from their multi-thousand follower count Twitter accounts, simply because I’ve put in more time than they on the ol' pachyderm platform. Their Twitter clout was worth nothing on Mastodon. But on Threads? I’m no one, while people who barely post at all have infinite followers, because their fame elsewhere ports easily to the platform.

Delano sums it up as a setup that instills an immediate feeling of being an outcast:

When I opened Threads for the first time, my brain reverted to that of a panicked and insecure teenager. Meta’s new social media app made me feel like I was a loser nerd, walking into a new school’s cafeteria. And as always, the popular kids could smell that I didn’t belong.

It’s the same feeling I felt as my own social graph began moving on from Facebook and new ones moved in, seemingly with many more reach right away.

Threads is a zombie, and like a zombie it’ll be hard to get rid of. Meta will keep trying to make it fetch. In his groundbreaking novel Zone One, Colson Whitehead talks about the unusual sight of seeing a zombie out in the wild in a world in which everyone is committed 24/7 to controlling their presence, and this sensation is similar to how I feel seeing Threads dominating the social network landscape like 2016 never happened (emphasis mine throughout):

The skel wore a morose and deeply stained pinstripe suit, with a solid crimson tie and dark brown tasseled loafers. A casualty, Mark Spitz thought. It was no longer a skel, but a version of something that predated the anguishes. Now it was one of those laid-off or ruined businessmen who pretend to go to the office for the family’s sake, spending all day on a park bench with missing slats to feed the pigeons bagel bits, his briefcase full of empty potato-chip bags and flyers for massage parlors. The city had long carried its own plague. Its infection had converted this creature into a member of its bygone loser cadre, into another one of the broke and the deluded, the misfitting, the inveterate unlucky. They tottered out of single-room occupancies or peeled themselves off the depleted relative’s pullout couch and stumbled into the sunlight for miserable adventures. He had seen them slowly make their way up the sidewalks in their woe, nurse an over-creamed cup of coffee at the corner greasy spoon in between health department crackdowns. This creature before them was the man on the bus no one sat next to, the haggard mystic screeching verdicts on the crowded subway car, the thing the new arrivals swore they’d never become but of course some of them did. It was a matter of percentages.

And now I’ll leave you by unpacking how the italicized passages relate to Threads:

  • something that predated the anguishes: Threads wants to be a social network from before 2016, when TikTok didn’t exist, Donald Trump was still a fringe figure, and social media was more favorably regarded overall.
  • his briefcase full of empty potato-chip bags and flyers for massage parlors: Threads has lots of users, but its posts are mostly junk, nothing I want or need to read—“celebrity posts” as Delano notes, plus lots of meta commentary on the state of different platforms, very little news, lots of recycled jokes.
  • stumbled into the sunlight for miserable adventures: It’s new-ish, it’s not Twitter, and that can feel liberating. But the experience of using it feels like a step back to the imperial era of social media, and therein lies a lot of algorithmic misery and disillusionment, e.g. feeling bad that other people’s content is very clearly getting noticed more.
  • the thing the new arrivals swore they’d never become but of course some of them did: It wasn’t long ago that many people saw Meta’s sites—Facebook especially, but also Instagram and WhatsApp—as artifacts for Boomers and aging Millennials. All the cool kids were on TikTok or any of the many Twitter successors. And yet many of the once too-cool crowd are now right back on a prime Meta property, posting pictures of their lunch like the Boomers they swore they’d never become.

  1. Apparently it didn’t reach 1 million officially til December 2004. ↩︎

  2. Boomers got Facebook at a very early stage, presaging its dominance with that demographic. ↩︎

  3. Long-distance was still a germane concern. ↩︎

  4. It bought its current domains, sans the “The,” for $200,000 in 2005. ↩︎

  5. A big carve-out, and for a reason. ↩︎

  6. Free/libre and open source software. Such software is free to study and modify as you see fit, as long as you follow its license. However, it might not be monetarily “free,” hence the need for the “libre” to distinguish it from “gratis” software. ↩︎

  7. I’m writing this blog from MarsEdit on an iMac, so hell yeah I still believe in boutique desktop software. ↩︎

  8. The deeper competition is from TikTok, although I think there’s still a chance it gets banned in the US. ↩︎

  9. I think meritocracy is a problematic concept, but we can use it loosely/relatively here I guess. ↩︎

  10. Make sure to subscribe! ↩︎