The Media Today

Q&A: Mathew Ingram on a week of Threads

July 12, 2023
Seen on the screen of a device in Sausalito, Calif., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces their new name, Meta, during a virtual event on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Zuckerberg talked up his latest passion -- creating a virtual reality "metaverse" for business, entertainment and meaningful social interactions. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Last Thursday, in his weekly newsletter for CJR, my colleague Mathew Ingram dissected the latest round of chaos at Twitter and his first impressions of Threads, a competitor app that Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, had launched a day prior. When Ingram wrote, Threads—which is separate from, but linked to, Instagram, allowing users to import their contacts from the latter platform—had already attracted several million users. Since then, it has continued to quickly gather momentum, hitting thirty million sign-ups within twenty-four hours of launch, then fifty million, then a hundred, making it one of the fastest-growing new apps ever. Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s CEO, described the early adoption rates as “way beyond our expectations.” Meanwhile, traffic to Twitter appears to be way down. Elon Musk, Twitter’s owner, responded by calling Zuckerberg a “cuck” and proposing a “literal dick measuring contest.”

While Threads is enjoying something of a media honeymoon, however, not everyone seems convinced by it just yet. While myriad journalists (Ingram included) have set up a Threads account, many of them have also remained on Twitter, reports of whose demise—at least as a tool for journalists to gather and share news—might yet prove exaggerated. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, has said publicly that Threads isn’t intended to be a hub for politics or “hard news”—a declaration in line with Meta’s other recent moves away from news-sharing—and Zuckerberg and his company have some, erm, questionable history when it comes to curating healthy online environments for the exchange of information. “I’m a little bit baffled by the enthusiasm” for Threads, The Atlantic’s Charlie Warzel said last week. “I know that I’m an incredibly jaded tech journalist who thinks too much about these places. But on Threads, I’m scrolling around there, and I’m like, Do people not understand that this is a Meta production?

Ahead of Threads marking its one-week birthday today, I spoke with Ingram about his experience as a journalist on the app so far, why I’m so far refusing to follow him there, and what the shifting balance of power between Threads and Twitter—and other would-be Twitter competitors, including Mastodon and BlueSky—might mean for the media. Our conversation, which took place over Google Docs, has been lightly edited for clarity.

JA: Hey, Mathew! You wrote a bit for us last week about your very early impressions of Threads. Have those changed at all? How are you finding the app so far?

MI: Have my early impressions of Threads changed? Yes and no. It’s still so new that it’s kind of hard to get a sense of it and what it represents, or even how it works, because it’s changing all the time. And now it has over a hundred million users, which is a staggeringly large number for a thing that has only been around for a week. In terms of utility, it seems to be part Twitter and part Instagram—and those things are in conflict with each other in some pretty fundamental ways. So I’m still on the fence about it, to be honest.

So I have a confession to make, which is that I haven’t signed up yet. For two reasons. One of them is practical: I use Twitter mostly for work, and am finding that it still just about performs the functions I need it for—mostly, seeing what other people on the media beat, who mostly still seem to be there, are saying—even if Musk has visibly broken it in many ways. I’ve heard so much talk about the latest hot Twitter competitor without one ever actually happening that I want to keep my powder dry with this one. I’m taking a wait-and-see approach on whether it will become essential for my work. 

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The other reason is… I don’t know if “principle” is the right word, but it is somewhat astonishing to me that so many people, many of whom were saying quite recently that Facebook is evil and all the rest of it, are stampeding into a new Facebook-owned product without a second thought, just because Elon is worse. I’m not saying Facebook is “evil,” but it is my long-held belief that it, or any other company for that matter, being allowed to monopolize so much of our online life is… really bad! So while I’m not ruling out going over to Threads, I do at least want to wait until it’s clear that that is the destination before doing so. What do you think about that?

I can definitely say that I share your concerns in both respects! I am still on Twitter, and it is still useful to some extent, although it’s getting harder and harder to find the gold amid an increasing amount of dross. And in just a few days on Threads, I would say I have probably reconstituted about 80 percent of my Twitter follows, which surprised me. As far as the problematic-billionaire question goes, there seem to be nothing but billionaire-controlled social apps as far as the eye can see, so to some extent we are forced to pick one. I don’t want to get into a point-by-point comparison of Musk and Zuckerberg, but I think Facebook’s flaws—as serious as they are—are a product of a well-intentioned commitment to a model (social connection at all costs), whereas I think Musk’s motivations are somewhat darker. 

One final point is that Threads is at least holding out the promise that it will eventually federate with open-source apps like Mastodon, and I think that that is a fundamentally good thing that Twitter seems to have no intention of doing (and I’ve said publicly that if Threads doesn’t do this then I will leave).

I guess my gripe with Meta in particular isn’t that Zuckerberg is a billionaire—though I’d of course love to see some mega-successful, non-billionaire-owned social apps!—but the concentration of power that he’s built. Currently, in terms of my social-app consumption, I only really use Twitter, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram, and I use them for very different things. Zuckerberg already owns three of those. The idea that one guy might control the terms of my entire social life—and not only social, but social-informational, for want of a better term—troubles me. (Another problem I have with Threads, incidentally, is that it piggybacks off Instagram, which I use in an almost anti-social way, as a curated feed of my life memories, like a personal photo album. I know Threads is a separate app, but I don’t see any personal appeal in carting my Instagram contacts over there. With all due respect to my Instagram contacts, they’re a pretty random group of people, and I’m not interested in getting news from them.)

Which I guess brings us on to a related point here: that Threads—in part because of this synergy, or whatever you want to call it, with Instagram—is not going to be the same app as Twitter. Its leaders have said that it won’t focus on politics and news so much. Whether that’s achievable if Twitter’s news-obsessed user base migrates there en masse is a different question, but Meta certainly does have a checkered recent history of downranking news content on its other apps, so I’m prepared to take them at their word here; I’m certainly not relying on them ever running Threads out of some civic commitment to news. As a journalist who uses Twitter for work, that’s a barrier for me. Can you see Threads taking on this journalistic function? Or is that a doomed hope?

The concentration of ownership is definitely a big concern, although I think Meta’s ownership of WhatsApp is actually a bigger problem than Instagram, because it is so much larger and for many people it is their only method of texting family. In any case, it’s not good—which is why I am so adamant about leaving Threads if they don’t implement federation with Mastodon and others. If they do do that, then anyone can use whatever app or service they want, but still interact with friends who use Threads, which to me would be ideal. Whether this happens remains to be seen. But I do think your point about different ecosystems is a good one—I also use Instagram in a very different way; mine is all photos of lakes and kayaks and bald eagles and babies. Blending that and a more Twitter-like user base would be like oil and water in a lot of ways, which is why I spent some time choosing specific people to follow rather than importing all my Instagram follows. As for Meta’s comments about not doing news on Threads, people will talk about whatever they want to talk about, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

I guess I also find the idea of having to rebuild my—relatively modest, but valuable to me—Twitter following on a different app to be daunting. I suppose the flip side, in some ways, of the concentration question is that I do actually find it useful for people I follow and talk to as a journalist to be centralized somewhere. (Though of course, people can be centralized for different purposes in different online spaces owned by different people.) I’ve seen a lot of talk to the effect that the downfall of Twitter will end this convenient centralization for journalists, in particular—we might reach a situation where Twitter and Threads hit a sort of equilibrium; where, in order to retain our past networks, we have to cross-post our work, spend time scrolling both sites, and so on. Which, as much as anything, sounds very tedious to me. How do you see that?

It’s very irritating! Re-creating my Twitter follows took a bunch of time, and I’ve had to do it on Mastodon and BlueSky as well, so it’s like a full-time job now. There’s definitely a lot of utility for users—and maybe especially for journalists—to have everything centralized in one place. But of course that also means having things controlled by a single entity or person, which has a number of downsides. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I am hoping that federation and the “fediverse” can help, in the way that Mike Masnick, of Techdirt, described in a white paper he wrote awhile back titled “Protocols Not Platforms.” We have the technology to allow users to choose the services that they want but still follow who they wish from other services, export their data, and so on. Unfortunately, that’s not in the interests of platforms that want to control the data so that they can monetize it. It would be nice if regulators would mandate that sort of thing, but I don’t really have any hope that that’s going to happen anytime soon.

Assuming it doesn’t happen anytime soon, what does this mean for Twitter as a journalistic tool in the short term? Lots of people think Twitter has been bad for journalism—trapping reporters behind their desks and in virtual echo chambers, and so on—while others think it has enabled them to tap into conversations they otherwise wouldn’t be hearing: among grassroots justice movements, for example. I’ve written before that Twitter can be an echo chamber but that it can also be a really powerful reporting tool depending on how you use it; as someone who writes about the media, I find it super useful to know what (at least some) other journalists are saying in real time in ways that might have remained largely invisible before. Does Threads rivaling Twitter create a whole new forum for that, and thus a whole new online world to get distracted by/beneficially explore (delete as appropriate)? Does it rob Twitter of its primary informational benefit—centralization—in ways that will just make useful information harder to find (and, to reverse the problem, to share with our audiences) and might durably hurt journalism? Does this all make for a great opportunity for journalists to finally abandon short-form social media and actually go outside? Or something else?

I think the main thing all of this means for journalists—assuming Twitter continues to decline, become unusable, and/or die—is that our jobs will become much harder than they have been since Twitter became such a dominant social network for news. Either we will have to visit and follow accounts and curate multiple different platforms to reach everyone who used to be on Twitter, or we will miss some portion of the user base we have grown accustomed to interacting with. We might actually have to go back to calling people on the phone! 

I do think in some ways Twitter has been a negative influence on journalism, in the sense that reporters have relied on it too much and perhaps even allow what is discussed or is trending there to distort what they believe the news to be. But at the same time, it has allowed journalists to survey or sample a fairly broad range of opinion and perspective (if used properly) very quickly, which has become so important now that the news cycle is only hours or even minutes long instead of days—which is a whole different problem, of course. So will a new future without Twitter, or with a few different social platforms, be better or worse in that sense? I wish I knew. It’s definitely likely to become harder. But also, possibly, more interesting.

Other notable stories:

  • In 2020, the Justice Department sought to shield then-President Trump from a defamation lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll—an advice columnist who had claimed, a year earlier, that Trump raped her in the nineties—on the grounds that Trump was a federal employee and thus immune from liability. (The defamation case stemmed from Trump’s denial of Carroll’s claim.) Biden’s Justice Department initially persisted with this argument, but yesterday did an about-face, Politico reports, after concluding that the conduct at issue was not “job related.” The department’s new position clears the way for a trial next year. (A jury already found that Trump sexually abused and defamed Carroll.) 
  • Recently, Texas A&M University announced that it had hired Kathleen McElroy, a former editor at the Times who then led the University of Texas at Austin’s journalism school, to revive its own journalism program. Texas A&M offered McElroy tenure—but according to the Texas Tribune’s Kate McGee, university staffers later told McElroy, who is Black, that “an increasingly vocal network of constituents within the system were expressing issues with her experience at the Times and with her work on race and diversity in newsrooms.” After Texas A&M subsequently downgraded its offer to McElroy, she opted to stay at UT.
  • For CJR, Joel Simon, the former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, reflects on Taiwan’s struggle against Chinese disinformation operations, and what others might learn from it. “The Taiwanese example shows that even when the stakes are existential, the best response may be to recognize that there are no short-term solutions and instead follow the guiding principle that has allowed Taiwan to survive and thrive in China’s shadow,” Simon writes: “strategic patience.”
  • Thailand’s Election Commission recommended that Pita Limjaroenrat—a progressive politician whose party finished first in recent elections, dealing a blow to the country’s military establishment—be suspended from Parliament, on the eve of lawmakers picking a new prime minister, while a court considers a case against him. The case revolves around shares that he ostensibly owned in a media company; the AP has more.
  • And The New Yorker’s Kyle Chayka commissioned an artificial-intelligence startup to train a program to write with his specific voice, based on “some hundred and fifty thousand words of my writing alone.” Its output “reminded me of the fragility of language and original thought,” (the real) Chayka observes. “As writers, we are all prone to falling into lazy patterns; avoiding them requires active effort. Robot Kyle is no different.”

Related: Twitter throttles tweets as Meta launches a competitor

Correction: A previous version of this post confused Kathleen McElroy and Kate McGee in one instance. The post has been updated.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.