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Will Mark Zuckerberg’s Threads app be a decentralized utopia or just another antisemitic hell?

The Twitter competitor app is part of the fediverse, a decentralized type of social media that is becoming popuar

People have been promising to leave Twitter since Elon Musk took over. Users have encouraged people to follow them on what feels like a new platform every week — Bluesky, Mastodon, Post. But so far, most of them are still on Twitter.

But this week, Meta, the parent company of Instagram and Facebook, rolled out their Twitter competitor: Threads. And it seems to actually be gaining traction; it immediately began trending on Twitter and got nearly 10 million sign-ups in its first seven hours, according to Mark Zuckerberg. My phone has been buzzing every few minutes notifying me of new friends signing up.

This early success could be for a number of reasons. Threads is connected to Instagram, which has a huge user base, making it easy to port over followers; Threads can also autopopulate new profiles with information from their Instagrams, so signing up is quick and easy. Unlike Bluesky, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s new platform, Threads doesn’t require an invite link, and unlike Mastodon, there’s no requirement to choose a home from a network of different servers, all with their own rules. Using it is simple, just scrolling through text posts, much like Twitter, though currently with far fewer features. (Threads currently doesn’t have a direct messaging function, curated feed or trending topics bar.)

And, of course, Threads is free of the strange rules that Musk put in place in recent months, whether that is an 800-tweet browsing limit or pay-to-play blue check marks or the constantly changing moderation standards. That means it at least feels like it will probably work better than Musk’s Twitter, which seems to be constantly breaking, thanks to a combination of layoffs and platform changes. (For example, I can no longer use Twitter on my phone.) 

While Meta’s flagship products, Facebook and Instagram, have seen a decrease in their social capital in recent years, Zuckerberg’s leadership is less capricious than Musk’s and as a result, his creations tend to, well, function. They’re at least somewhat moderated — Twitter is full of screenshots from people who have already been banned from Threads for hate speech. Zuckerberg’s sites feel safer, though Meta does not have a great track record with moderation or privacy.

But Threads is not so different from the other Twitter clones, particularly because it is going to be part of the fediverse.

The fediverse is a new(ish) model of decentralized social media, a confusing idea that kept it at the fringes of online life for years. But with the collapse of social media as we know it, the fediverse seems to be catching on; nearly every Twitter clone so far has been based on a decentralized model. Meta throwing its hat into the ring confirms that it’s the hot new thing in social media. 

Basically, the idea is that it is less siloed, and everything is interconnected. Instead of people posting screenshots of tweets to Reddit, or reposting TikToks on Instagram Reels, posts will be, at least in theory, integrated. Threads can be posted directly to Instagram, for example.

In the fediverse, many different sites or servers will use the same basic program or “protocol,” allowing users to communicate across different servers, all of which might be owned or run by different companies. The uniting factor of a fediverse is the protocols the servers are using. But so far, the Twitter competitors are using different protocols, meaning they can’t talk to each other, sort of defeating the entire premise of the fediverse. (Bluesky is developing a protocol called AT, while Threads and Mastodon use ActivityPub.)

“Our vision is that Threads will enable you to communicate with people on other fediverse platforms that we don’t own or control,” reads a statement in the Threads Help Center. “This means that your Threads profile can follow or be followed by people using different servers on the fediverse.”

It’s a utopian idea — the fediverse is customizable, allowing users to join communities that best suit their interests and control their feeds without being cut off from the wider world. And it theoretically frees us from the dictatorial monopolies controlled by Musk or even Zuckerberg, though Meta entering it with a massive server and millions of users likely undermines that idea. (While Meta is entering the fediverse, Musk is limiting the access developers have to Twitter’s information, making it harder for outside parties to participate on Twitter.)

But there’s an issue: Once your content is cross-posted on some other server, you have no control over it. “Because of this, changes you make to your posts will affect how they appear on Threads, but may not change how they appear on other servers,” Threads’ Help Center explains.

This would seem to make moderation nearly impossible, at both an individual and systemic level. Many optimists tout the fediverse’s increased moderation abilities because of each server’s smaller scale and ability to tailor rules to its users, not unlike the culture of a subreddit. But with so many independent servers, there can also be easy homes for antisemites, white nationalists, conspiracy theorists and other hate groups to proliferate unmoderated, and, to some extent, to participate across the fediverse. Indeed, when Mastodon went viral in the autumn, several hate groups started servers.

This is not a new phenomenon; there are plenty of hate groups proliferating in their own, semi-isolated corners of the internet on sites like 4chan. But they’re unable to participate in the mainstream discourse because they are banned from the dominant platforms. This isn’t true in the fediverse. It is possible for individual servers to block other servers they don’t like. But unless every single server blocks those hosting hate groups, isolating them completely, they will be able to seep out into more mainstream discourse. As a large platform, Threads blocking hate speech could be quite impactful; on the other hand, Threads may serve to introduce millions of new users to the fediverse, where they might later move to a less-moderated server.

A major company like Meta putting its foot into the fediverse is a strong vote toward a future of a more interconnected, decentralized internet. It remains to be seen what that new online world looks like; who knows, maybe a far better way of moderation will emerge. But what’s certain is that we’re going to find out; with Meta joining the decentralization bandwagon, the fediverse feels inevitable.

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