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Unspooling Threads: Why AI could be the biggest motivator behind Meta’s new app

August 2023
 by Georgina Lovett-Wride

Unspooling Threads: Why AI could be the biggest motivator behind Meta’s new app

August 2023
 By Georgina Lovett-Wride

On 5 July 2023, Meta launched its new text-based social media platform, Threads. Roughly a month on, as the hype of the launch subsides, engagement on the platform has understandably dropped. And although Threads generated 100 million user sign-ups in the first week, making it the fastest-growing app in history, that pales into insignificance when compared to Instagram’s 2.35 billion estimated monthly active users.

Since the launch of Threads, we have been teased with the promise of a cage fight between two of Silicon Valley’s foremost entrepreneurs, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. While the fight may not materialise physically, it is certainly playing out commercially – in the race to tackle decentralised social media, the European Courts of Justice, and the AI chatbot development divisions of the two companies.

The influence of AI

Threads is as alike to Twitter (now re-branded ‘X’) in aesthetics as it is in functionality. This is a trend that we have already seen with the decentralised social media platforms Mastodon, Parler and Truth Social, all of which also share remarkable similarities to Musk’s social media giant.

The Threads app was reportedly built in a matter of months by a small team of developers – and there may be a reason behind this extraordinary pace of development that goes beyond just a grab for market share. The written word is vital in training Large Language Models (LLMs), the engines behind the new breed of AI chatbots such as ChatGPT and Bard. With the launch of Threads, Meta has added kerosene to its ability to train these models.

Using Instagram as the feeder platform for Threads (it takes just a click to import your profile), Meta has created a network effect that is critical to making a social platform gain traction in a very short timeframe.

As we discussed in our last newsletter, well-trained LLMs are key to the viability and commercial success of AI chatbots. The limitations and failures of LLMs to date have undoubtedly contributed to the declining usage seen recently by Microsoft’s Chat GPT and Google’s Bard: novelty wears off as issues become more apparent. The potential value for Meta in succeeding where even Microsoft and Google have struggled in their initial stages is huge.

AI chatbots and the fight for data

Companies including Reddit and Twitter have taken measures to stop generative AI models from scraping their data for use in AI chatbots to train LLMs. Twitter recently introduced content limits, with users who read too many tweets having their supply cut off at a certain point (verified Twitter Blue accounts can access higher volumes of tweets than unverified accounts). Limiting content in this way makes it harder for AI models to access and scrape large quantities of data from Twitter.

With Threads, Meta has created its own pool of content from which to syphon data, which it can then use for its own purposes, licence for use by others, or use to create a long-term growth engine (many will note the company’s recent release of Llama 2), bypassing the need to limit platform interaction or introduce paywalls.

Despite this, Threads has not yet managed to escape some of the same issues that have plagued Twitter, and the fledgling platform has openly stated it has had to employ some activity-limiting measures as a result. But the company appears to be leaning into the problem: come September, we could see chatbots that take the form of different personas launching across Meta’s brands, in a move designed to boost engagement and enable the collection of vast amounts of data. These developments have raised concerns about their potential to enable manipulation and nudging, particularly in the run-up to the 2024 US general election.

Threads and the barriers to wider adoption

As Twitter and Meta have matured, social connectivity has become as much about brands engaging with users as it is about users engaging with their friends. For businesses, the opportunities for brand engagement, and on the flip side the risks to brand identity, remain the same on Threads as those encountered on the more established platforms.

Twitter started to drop in visibility on Google’s search results pages the day after Threads was released. Though this has seemingly reverted now, it is too soon to tell whether Google will reward Threads’ user experience in the longer term with higher visibility in rankings to rival those enjoyed by Twitter and Instagram.

The design of the Twitter platform elevates the reply to a tweet to the same level of visual priority as the original tweet. However, the ‘post and comment’ model used on Threads doesn’t allow for as much diverse discourse, as Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri himself has admitted, as it doesn’t display reactions and responses as visibly.

Adding to its limitations, Threads has not launched in the European Union, thanks to the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA). This regulation prevents companies from reusing a user’s personal data, including their name and location, across its products for targeted advertising. The primary concern of the DMA is to stop Meta from self-preferencing its own products in the marketplace and disadvantaging competitors.

How Mosseri and his team resolve these problems will in part determine the extent to which corporates see Threads as an increased value proposition. If their messaging can’t resonate as well with users, they are less likely to spend time and money engaging with the platform.

Tackling disinformation

Threads faces the same problems as its competitors when it comes to the presence of text- and image-based disinformation on its platform. Mosseri, who ran Facebook’s news feed in 2016, has stated that as the platform starts weaving its way into the social fabric, it will not be doing anything to “encourage” politics or hard news discussions, stating it is not worth the “incremental engagement or revenue”.

This statement comes as the company is removing news from both Facebook and Instagram in Canada, following the country’s publication of the Online News Act which will force tech companies like Meta and Google to negotiate with news publishers and pay them for their content.

Decentralisation and the future of social networks

Driving public conversations has always been at the heart of social media, and Mosseri has publicly backed decentralisation as the future of social networks, saying future versions of Threads will allow for interoperability with decentralised platforms such as Mastodon. In practice, this will mean that posts on one platform will be able to be viewed on another, once Meta eventually switches to ActivityPub, a decentralised social networking protocol. As we have touched on before, with social networks built on decentralised networks, the servers supporting the systems are not owned by a single company such as Meta.

The move to ActivityPub will mean Threads should be able to block some forms of content before they even make it on to the platform, helping to solve some of the trickier content moderation issues faced by platforms such as Twitter today. The model is similar to that of BlueSky, the decentralised social media platform that was spun off from Twitter by its co-founder Jack Dorsey after its sale to Elon Musk.

Despite struggling to retain users, with the launch of Threads, Meta may have captured a unique value proposition for brands and users alike, while increasing the value of the company. This value comes not just from what it will be able to do with a new market share, but perhaps more importantly, from its potential to feed future AI capabilities with the data that it will be able to capture. If it can get past its teething problems and continue to grow users, the potential value for Meta is huge as AI capability becomes increasingly important for the online giants to continue to thrive in the months and years to come.

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