Threads: Strangled at Birth

A mobile screenshot of the Threads homepage, showing the word 'Threads' with the 'a' stylised to resemble a curved piece of thread, a rotating pattern of pink and orange bubbles, and the words "Get the app" underneath.
The Threads homepage, with nothing except an invitation to get the app

Today Instagram, a division of Meta which also owns Facebook and WhatsApp, launched their social media app, Threads. This has been marketed as a “Twitter killer” for several weeks as Elon Musk continues to ruin the app he bought last year. I eagerly joined, despite warnings that it’s a data sink, much like its parent company. But I doubt that very much data will be sinking into it once people realise its limitations. I have a hunch that this will be a repeat of the last major social media flop, Google Plus.

Google Plus, despite obvious corporate backing, flopped because it lacked critical features, in this case the groups function that Facebook had had for years. Despite some of the problems with Facebook (which were related to reliability rather than privacy, and Google has all the same privacy issues as Facebook), I couldn’t encourage any of the people I knew through Facebook groups to come to G+ as we could not set up a group there. Because of Facebook’s problems I actually thought G+ would work, if Google implemented groups, but they did not. Threads lacks three major critical features that are essential to win over Twitter users who are dismayed by Musk’s changes to the platform.

One is direct messages, a ludicrous omission given that they are already present in Instagram.

Two is a chronological, friends-only timeline. Despite following a number of people from my Instagram friend circle, I could not see any of their posts, only promoted content. This is a major irritation with both Instagram and Facebook and it’s a common complaint that the chronological timeline on Twitter is less easy to use than the curated one and that the app has a habit of defaulting back to the curated one, although I find both useful. Threads just has the curated one and none of it seems relevant to me.

Three is any kind of desktop access. You can view people’s profiles on a browser and nothing else. There are reply, like and share icons which, when clicked, lead only to invites to get the app, which does not exist on MacOS and there is no evidence of plans for one (I do not use Windows); if you go to the Threads website on a Mac, all you will see is the word ‘Threads’, a rotating graphic and a QR code to access the mobile apps. Instagram tells us that they will be opening up the app to the ActivityPub API which is used by Mastodon and that they want to ‘federate’ it into that system, though a number of Mastodon host owners have said they will block any host that accepts Threads due to the privacy concerns, but it will enable Mastodon desktop clients to access Threads. However, this access should have been made available from the beginning.

Why is desktop access essential? Simply because some of us use our computers to access the Internet when we sit at our desks, and our phones only when we are on the go. When I publish a blog entry, the first thing I do is publish links on social media, including Twitter. I have no way of doing this for Threads without switching devices. On Twitter I am seeing numerous links to my friends’ Threads profiles, but I cannot act on them from my desktop. This is consistent with how Instagram itself launched, but that model works for an app centred on mobile cameras and not for a text-based social media app. Many people type best on keyboards, not a mobile phone touch screen.

Add to this the fact that the app has not launched in Europe yet because the company does not know how it will comply with the EU’s Digital Markets Act. So, if you sign up to this today, your friends in Europe (including Ireland) will not be able to talk to you unless they use a proxy to pretend they are in the US.

Disabled people, particularly those with visual impairments, have also pointed to the lack of accessibility features such as support for Alt text and resizeable text, both common on social media apps (the former certainly on Instagram, though it’s tucked away in the advanced settings). The app does work with VoiceOver, which caters for the totally blind, but other ways of using an app exist which are not supported. It may be that the app was rushed to market to take advantage of Twitter’s travails, but it has resulted in a lot of disappointment and frustration.

In short, Threads sucks and is likely to flop. Despite not having Elon Musk messing around with it, which would otherwise be an advantage, it has all the limitations of Twitter and Mastodon and then some extra ones that mean there is no reason to switch from Twitter unless Twitter actually folds. It was a crass folly to launch this app with such important features missing.

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