On July 5, Facebook parent company Meta released Threads, a Twitter competitor that drew 70 million users in its first few days, dramatically outpacing other would-be Twitter replacements and becoming the fastest-growing app in history.
A big part of the reason so many users joined so quickly was because it was easy: Threads was built as a sibling to Meta’s established social photo sharing app Instagram, which already had 2 billion users. This meant that users could port over their Instagram profile information — and, more crucially, the set of accounts they follow. Thus anyone joining Threads could, at least to some degree, transfer over their content preferences and social network directly — and anyone who had already built up a following on Instagram could carry that audience over.
It was only easy, however, for users who wanted to import their life from Instagram. Threads users whose previous social media focus had been Twitter had to re-build their social connections and audience from scratch. Many people (including both authors of this article) had to spend hours tracking down the people they followed on Twitter in the new environment. And everyone, even those who had previously been well-established on Instagram, had to build up a new content base from scratch.
Nevertheless, the launch of Threads signals an important shift: It’s the first mainstream glimpse of what social media based on partially or fully open software protocols — shared social media infrastructure that many different applications can leverage at once — could look like. Protocol-based social media allows users to transfer profiles, content, who they follow, and reputation information flexibly across platforms. While this may seem minor, it represents the transition from an era where users are locked into individual social media platforms to one in which they can move freely across them — a multi-application ecosystem powered by shared infrastructure.
To be clear, Threads isn’t an open ecosystem at present. But Instagram head Adam Mosseri has said that Threads aims to eventually enable access to an open social media protocol called ActivityPub (which powers the decentralized social media platform Mastodon), which would allow users to port over their follow graph and social media identity to a range of other apps. Meanwhile, a number of entrepreneurs are already designing social media products as open protocols from the get-go, and encouraging third-party developers to build various applications on top of them.
This shift to protocol-based social media will have major implications for both users and companies. If this trend continues, users will increasingly have a unified social media identity across different applications, and the flexibility to switch platforms without having to start over each time. For companies, a protocol model would catalyze third-party developer ecosystems to innovate on top of social media content and network architecture, contributing to broader innovation in the space.
The Problems of Social Media Walled Gardens
Today’s top social media applications such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are designed as “walled gardens” — self-contained ecosystems that lock users’ data inside the platform, and tightly control access. Although a user can export the posts, photos, and other content they’ve created, there’s no easy mechanism to migrate it elsewhere (other than re-uploading it manually, piece by piece). Moreover, there’s typically no way to extract reputation information such as “likes” or network information such as the follow-graph, which means that whenever users join a new platform, they have to re-establish their following and reputation. Power users — those with the most curated content feeds, and/or the biggest audiences — are particularly disincentivized from switching.
All of this helps social media platforms entrench their market dominance. Because it’s a pain to move to a competitor, users stick around even when their experience degrades. Platforms don’t always make content curation decisions in their users’ best interests, and even when they try to, they don’t always do a good job, as with Twitter’s recent, widely criticized feed algorithm changes.
For people who rely on platforms for their livelihoods, this can create even bigger headaches. Content creators can spend years building an audience and then lose it in an instant for a variety of reasons dictated by the people running the platform. Meanwhile, developers who build businesses leveraging social media platform APIs are also at the whim of platform owners. Walled-garden platforms can choose to change their API pricing, or revoke access entirely — as both Twitter and Reddit recently did.
There are downstream impacts, as well: With walled gardens, people’s digital identities and social networks end up being disconnected and siloed across different platforms. People often have to focus on one or a few social media environments, which means the content they create may not reach the widest audience possible. Many of our colleagues, for example, have active followings for their business and technology posts on Twitter, but have never had time to build up engagement on LinkedIn, even though people there would probably appreciate their posts, too. When people do cultivate audiences on multiple platforms, they either have to split their content across them, or go through the inefficient process of reposting more or less the same content in each place.
From Platforms to Open Protocols
Social media based on open protocols, however, could address some of these problems. Making data interoperable across platforms would unlock cross-platform content consumption and reputation formation. It would also open up the potential for developers to remix and experiment with alternative feed algorithms and content delivery modes.
Protocols are the software that makes up platforms’ inner machinery. They determine functionality, such as what information each user account holds and what types of content users can create, alongside the state, i.e., the history of user data and interactions. Users interface with this interior machinery through front-end “application” layers called clients. For example, people interact with Twitter’s backend protocol through a number of different applications, including the Twitter web and mobile clients, as well as clients like TweetDeck and HootSuite. But with Twitter, the platform itself controls access to the protocol; and indeed, it has recently shut down a number of clients that compete with its main in-house apps.
An open protocol approach, on the other hand, puts the core software protocols on public computing infrastructure out in the open — often on blockchains — and records data in a standardized format that can be plugged into other apps. That allows users to link a single social account to many different platforms at once, complete with their followers/connections, and perhaps even the specific content they create and the reactions it receives. It’s a bit like “login with Google,” but without the middleman.
In short, open protocol-based social media identities become unified and portable. A content creator might use a single protocol to syndicate short content to platforms like Threads and Twitter, photos to a platform like Instagram, and longer-form videos to a platform like YouTube or Twitch — with the “views” and “likes” statistics shared across all these platforms at once. A content consumer, meanwhile, could use a unified, protocol-level follow-graph to stay in touch with their favorite creators on all the social media platforms they visit.
This use of open software protocols instead of closed platforms for social media is part of a broader movement in Internet technology called “Web3,” which centers on giving users direct control of their data and other digital assets, and making those digital assets usable flexibly across different platforms. As one of us (Kominers) wrote with koodos labs co-founder Jad Esber and describes further in a forthcoming book with web3/marketing expert Steve Kaczynski, this model gives users an opportunity and an incentive to invest in building more complete, unified digital identities. Users can retain their identity and reputation as they move across different digital environments, just like they are used to doing in the physical world.
Open protocol systems have clear theoretical advantages for users, developers, and businesses. For one, they allow for more competition by changing the relationship between social media users and platforms. If a given platform’s quality declines — or if a new, better platform enters — then users can easily take their data and audiences with them to a competitor. As one of us (Kominers) wrote with Lightspark Co-Founder and MIT Cryptoeconomics Lab Founder Christian Catalini, this should hopefully enhance market competition and, in particular, encourage clients to compete on quality. But this process only works if the protocol creator credibly commits that the system will be open and accessible on an ongoing basis — typically by building the protocol on decentralized infrastructure, such as a blockchain, where it is not fully controlled by any single entity or individual.
Blockchain-based social media protocol Farcaster, for example, manages a “Name Registry” that gives each user an ID and username that can be used with any client that works with the Farcaster protocol. These are stored on the Ethereum blockchain, and attached to the user’s personal Ethereum account. These accounts are in the user’s locus of control, and so users can take their Farcaster protocol identities with them to any client in the ecosystem. Third-party developers are empowered (and encouraged) to build a diverse array of clients for different content formats and user segments. In fact, there is already a fledgling ecosystem of third-party applications built on the Farcaster protocol. Non-blockchain based decentralized social media projects like Bluesky and Mastodon are building towards similar open ecosystems and benefits for their users, but with different technical backbones.
Threading the Needle
Ironically, the ease of onboarding onto Threads for existing Instagram users gives a hint of the power of protocol-based social media by highlighting how valuable portable social media identity can be. At the same time, the difficulty of rebuilding Twitter followings on Threads illustrates how far we have to go to get there. And moreover, the quick growth of Threads relative to other Twitter competitors that have been around longer highlights the continued dominance of platform giants such as Meta in the social media space.
While the Threads news is significant, it’s early days yet. At least for now, Threads is still part of a closed ecosystem controlled by Meta. And decentralized social media protocols have just a sliver of the user base seen on platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. But if they do gain traction, they have the potential to become more embedded in our lives than even the current wave of social media applications. A unified digital identity makes it easier to connect it to a wider world of applications. Open-protocol social media encourages developers to experiment with new applications and variations on the technology to meet those users’ needs.
The biggest possible shift here, however, is the rules of the game. Right now, platforms hold onto their dominance by making users feel like they’d be losing something if they walked away. But similar to open-source software, in a world of open-protocol social media the dominant market player is not the platform that manages to most effectively ensnare users, but rather the protocol that becomes most embedded and useful across different applications. That’s an overall more collaborative outcome that could create significant value for consumers, creators, and developers — and could lead to fast growth if/when user adoption does take off.
At the same time, to gain widespread adoption, these protocols have to overcome significant hurdles. On top of all the ordinary barriers to entry in social media — people needing to re-establish their social graphs and content networks — there’s a user education challenge. Mainstream social media users are used to the existing, platform-based landscape, and are mostly unfamiliar with the benefits of protocol-based approaches (as well as the blockchain technology many current social media protocols are built on).
The Threads launch proves that users can and will develop identities in new social media environments if given sufficient cause and opportunity. And there’s been growing demand for social media applications where users have more direct control over their data and experience – owing in part to user frustration with centralized social media platform operators.
Ironically, if Threads follows through with their promise to allow users to export and transfer their identities and social graphs to other platforms, this could prove to be a major catalyst for adoption of decentralized social media. But like with existing social media platforms, the biggest drivers of adoption will be killer applications. For Facebook, this was full-network social connection; for Twitter, it was real-time news media. With social media protocols, the most valuable applications will likely be those that leverage the protocol’s interoperability — for example, by making it possible to creators to experiment with different content formats, and then syndicate and link related material across different clients.
Whatever the case, with multiple clients feeding into the same protocol, the network feedback loop can be fast: Once someone finds their way to a protocol-based social media environment, they quickly build up an identity that can be used throughout the entire ecosystem.
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A social media future powered by open protocols should lead to more portable digital identities, as well as a panoply of competing applications catering to different user segments. The winning apps should be those that the most users freely choose to move to, unencumbered by switching costs. This both raises the bar for applications and creates an environment in which many of them can flourish in parallel — with users maintaining unified identities and reputations across them. This carries the potential of a more open and transparent social media landscape on the Internet — a place where we increasingly spend more of our lives.
In the meantime, you can find us on Twitter, Threads, and Farcaster.
Acknowledgments: The authors thank Cameron Armstrong, Shai Bernstein, Sonal Chokshi, Kerry Herman, Miles Jennings, Steve Kaczynski, Eddy Lazzarin, Das Narayandas, Tim Sullivan, Mary Sun, Scott Walker, and especially Chris Dixon and Sriram Krishnan for helpful conversations and comments.
Disclosures: Kominers is a Research Partner at a16z crypto, which reviewed a draft of this article for compliance prior to publication. a16z has invested in several decentralized social media platforms, as well as Twitter (see general a16z disclosures here). Additionally, both Kominers and Wu hold various crypto assets; advise crypto and web3 projects; and regularly use both centralized and decentralized social media platforms.