Threads app gains popularity, but it comes with some privacy concerns
Jul 11, 2023

Threads app gains popularity, but it comes with some privacy concerns

The new Meta-owned social media platform is great at data portability, but some are weary of one company owning all communication channels.

The hot, new thing in social media is not really that new at all. And that’s kind of the point. The app Threads from Meta looks like a familiar blend of Twitter and Instagram.

It’s attracted more than 100 million users in less than a week, pulling way ahead of Twitter alternatives like Mastodon or Bluesky, in large part because it’s part of an already established social media brand. You don’t have to start from scratch on Threads; just log in with your Instagram credentials and import all your follows with the push of a button.

But there’s some baggage that comes along with that Insta network, said Shirin Ghaffary, a senior correspondent at Vox who covers social media. She talked about it with Marketplace’s Meghan McCarty Carino. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Shirin Ghaffary: On the one hand, a lot of people are frustrated with Twitter and they want an alternative; on the other, the alternative is an app that is owned and controlled by the largest social media company in the world. So it does kind of feel like there’s not a real upstart competitor. I think the closest thing we have to that is TikTok. So, yeah, it really does feel like it’s a war between two big tech titans here.

Meghan McCarty Carino: What are some of the implications of having maybe all of your social networks be under one parent company: Meta?

Ghaffary: Already, you can see how Threads is pulling data from Instagram — it’s pulling your friend network. Now, you’re doing that willingly because you’re logging into Threads with your Instagram credentials. But I will say that, I think smartly, Meta/Instagram has decided to say that Threads’ future will be decentralized. The idea is that in the future, theoretically, you should be able to kind of export all your Threads followers to any app of your choice, if you wanted to.

McCarty Carino: Yeah, tell me more about this concept of decentralized social media.

Ghaffary: Yeah, so the idea there is that instead of just having a couple of major social platforms, where you’re locked in, and you have all your followers, all your posts, all your information, that there should be some kind of standard across all different apps so that if you want to go and take your social media information from one place to the other, you can quickly do that in this kind of decentralized world where there’s many, many, many different options for how you pored over all your social media life. But what Instagram is saying that is truly different, and could really make decentralization more mainstream, is they would be the first major social media network player to actually do that, to say, “OK, we’re going to let you take the kind of social credibility you build up here and move it somewhere else.”

McCarty Carino: Now, of course, Meta, Facebook, Instagram have relied on advertising to make money. Is that going to be the case with Threads too?

Ghaffary: There’s no advertising on Threads yet. That’s a conscious choice they’ve made, and it’s one that helps them grow it. If you’re just trying to get users engaged in using a new app, you don’t want them bogged down by advertisements they don’t necessarily want to see. Meta also has so much income that it doesn’t need to try to juice ads right away. However, they have said that that is coming. Mark Zuckerberg made a Thread [post] and said once they hit 1 billion users, they’ll start to worry about that problem. And they’re at 100 million now. But, I mean, Meta runs its business on ads, so one day, if Threads continues to grow, you can expect to see some in there.

McCarty Carino: Let’s talk about what’s been happening internationally with Threads. It has not been released in the European Union likely because of some regulatory complications, right?

Ghaffary: Right. So the EU has a set of new regulations coming out. And while the details are still being decided, and it’s not clear exactly how it’s going to be implemented, Meta sort of preemptively decided not to roll out in the EU, because reportedly, they’re worried about meeting these regulations. So the reason there is that these regulations could potentially limit the way that companies like Meta share data across their different subsidiaries and apps. So what we were talking about there were Threads’ big advantage is that it can plug into your Instagram data. If it can’t do that, or if there are problems with doing that, then that’s where it could run into issues under this EU act. But, again, this is all very tentative, we don’t know exactly how the regulation is going to work. So the bottom line is that the act limits gatekeepers, and Meta is definitely seen as a company that is so big that it could be a gatekeeper.

McCarty Carino: And what are some of the data privacy concerns that have have come up around Threads?

Ghaffary: There was like a screenshot that kind of was making the rounds on the internet of all the permissions that you give Threads when you sign up to use it. And that’s just something that’s really true in the Apple App Store, when you download it, and it says “Meta has the permission to track things like your location, your health data.” But while that can sound scary, and it certainly is to a lot of people, it’s pretty standard. I looked into it, and Twitter has the same privacy permissions that you give it when you download the app. So, I mean, I think the reality that people are still uncomfortable with on a fundamental level is all these social media apps, most of them really do track our online behavior one way or another. And you are giving up more of your data when you download an additional app from one of these big tech companies.

McCarty Carino: We are now in week two of the fast-evolving life of Threads. What are you going to be keeping a close eye on as things move along?

Ghaffary: I’m going to be looking at the tone of the app. I think that Meta did a lot of work to try to see these big brands and celebrities — people like Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Martha Stewart, and then big brands like Wendy’s are on there. And while that can definitely add to kind of the credibility of an app when it first rolls out, you also need the authentic creators. You need the people who are not necessarily famous but are becoming famous because what they’re posting on the app is so interesting. And I think that’s what I’m going to be looking for — is this app going to continue this hype to grow, or is it going to fizzle out and become a little more boring if we don’t have an emphasis again on this, like, organic, interesting, fresh, new text content?

McCarty Carino: One of the big questions I have moving forward is not just whether Threads, but really, whether any app can sort of reclaim the kind of success and status that Twitter once had?

Ghaffary: That’s actually a really interesting question because there’s a big debate right now: Is the era of traditional social media dead, or is Meta proving that it can still work? And, again, I think we’ll only know once we see a month from now, two months from now, how much people are really returning to an app like Threads that is very much still a relic of kind of social media’s past. There’s a real fear that maybe we’re done with text social media.

More on this

We talked about how Threads has the built-in network effects from Instagram and has worked to get celebrities engaged. But it’s not clear yet that will be the key to making it feel like the Twitter of old. Writer Anne Helen Petersen has a fun breakdown of what her Threads timeline looked like when she auto-followed all the accounts from her Instagram, and how different and off the experience was compared to both Twitter and Instagram.

For instance, those popular Peloton instructors whose houses and weddings and vacations you like to spy on in photos — well, lets just say their posts on Threads feel a little more prosaic. And I’m not sure I need to know the micro-blogging thoughts of the various silly animal and interior design accounts I follow on Instagram either.

But Threads does have an advantage when it comes to one popular account: the 20-year-old college student Jack Sweeney who tracks the whereabout of Elon Musk’s private jet, now known as elonmusksjet on Threads, according to CNN. Sweeney had been suspended from Twitter when Elon Musk took over last November. He then continued to tweet the jet’s location under a different account with a delay of 24 hours. But over on Threads, Sweeney already has tens of thousands of followers for his now-real-time updates.

And it appears Threads’ popularity might already be eating away at Twitter usage. The CEO of Cloudflare, which provides network services, Tweeted a graph last weekend that seemed to show Twitter’s traffic “tanking,” in his words. Another web analytics firm, Similarweb, told CNBC that Twitter’s traffic was down 5% during the first two days after Threads became available, and down 10% over the same period last year.

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