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Threads Plans to Deprioritize Political Discussion Through New Recommendations Approach

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Yeah, I’m not sure that this aligns with the key strengths of a real-time social discussion app.

Today, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri has announced that both Instagram and Threads are ramping up their systems to avoid recommending political content, in order to limit topical exposure to users who’ve had enough of constant, divisive political debates.

As explained by Mosseri:

If you follow political accounts on Threads or Instagram, we want to avoid getting between you and their content. That said, we also don’t want to proactively amplify political content from accounts you don’t follow. To that end, we’re extending our existing approach to how we avoid recommending political content to additional surfaces. Over the next few weeks we will be improving how we avoid recommending content about politics on recommendation surfaces – like Explore, Reels, and Suggested Users – across both Instagram and Threads. If you want political recommendations, you will have a control to opt into getting them. These recommendations updates apply to public accounts and only in places where we recommend content. They don’t change how we show people content from accounts they choose to follow.”

So, to clarify, on both Instagram and Threads, the recommendation systems powering Explore, Reels, and within its Suggested Users display, will now more actively avoid highlighting content and users related to political topics.

Which is a viable approach on Instagram, and Facebook incidentally, which has actually been borne out in experience.

For example, back in January 2021, in the wake of the Capitol Riots, Meta began a broader push to reduce political content exposure in its apps, in order to avoid the harm and angst caused by such, while also addressing direct user feedback.

As Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted in a Facebook earnings call on January 27th, 2021:

“One of the top pieces of feedback we’re hearing from our community right now is that people don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on our services.”

That sparked the beginning of Meta’s AI recommendations push, in which it sought to follow the lead of TikTok by showcasing top-performing video content from across the app within user feeds, whether users followed the creators of such content or not.

And that has been effective. 40% of the content that people see on Instagram now comes via AI recommendations, with a slightly lesser amount on FB, and in the past year, that approach has driven a 7% increase in time spent on Facebook, and a 6% increase in the same on IG.

This has been a critical win, because at one time, it did seem that both Facebook and Instagram were on the way out as key connective surfaces, amid TikTok’s rise. But switching to a more entertainment-focused approach, centered on Reels recommendations, now has both of its core apps back on the right track.

It’s less “social”, as it’s more about showing people the most entertaining content from across its network, in order to maximize engagement in each app. But it’s working, while it’s also enabled both platforms to veer away from political discussion, which the metrics would indicate has been a big winner. Whether users say that they like it or not.

Which is seemingly why it’s now looking to expand the same to Threads, where it’s repeatedly noted that it’s taking a different approach to real-time discussion.

However, from a Threads perspective, I don’t think that this will be effective.

Why is that?

Because Threads is, at least in perception, seeking to usurp X as the real-time discussion platform of choice, and Twitter succeeded for years, almost despite itself, because it offered a means to tap into the pulse of whatever was happening, at any given time.

Which not only involves political content, it’s actually central to this approach.

Sure, political content can be divisive and harmful, and annoying to many users. But it’s a key element of day-to-day discussion, and if Threads wants to play a role within that space, politics-related chatter will be critical to its existence.

There’s also a question of what contributes “political” content, and how that impacts posting behaviors. If I want to get more followers on Threads, this will now mean that I should avoid sharing opinions on any potentially political topic, because that’ll exclude my account from follow recommendations. Is Elon Musk a political topic? I don’t post about politics, but I do post about social platforms. Do I now need to modify my approach?

At the same time, not even Meta seems to be sure what constitutes political/offensive material, given its more recent debate around the term “Zionist”. Also, if it’s using AI to determine this, do you need to be careful about the specific terms that you use in any debate? And how much can you post about politics without being restricted?  

It’s pretty opaque at this stage. And while this new approach will include an opt-in if you do want to see content related to politics, Meta also knows that most people won’t use it, the same as how it offers a “Following” feed, but won’t make it the default, because it knows that most users won’t bother to switch over. Which then enables it to squeeze more engagement out of its AI content recommendations, by showing people a wider range of content types from users that they don’t follow in the main “For You” feed.

Essentially, Meta’s looking to take the same approach that it has on Facebook and IG within Threads as well. But I suspect, in large part, that misses the point.

Really, over time, I’m actually starting to lose faith in the prospect Meta building Threads into a viable Twitter alternative at all, based on such moves.

Originally, when Meta launched Threads in July last year, I presumed that Threads would eventually unseat Twitter (before it became X) as the home of real-time engagement, due to Elon’s radical and unpopular moves at the app, and Meta’s experience in building social platforms.

Nobody knows what works in driving engagement more than Meta, right? Facebook and IG are the two biggest social platforms in the world, and if anyone can see what trends are driving interest, it’s definitely the Meta team.

Right?

I still think that’s true, but as time goes on, we’re also seeing a variance in perception based on this, because what works on Facebook/Instagram is unlikely to be what also drives engagement in a real-time social app.

For example:

Mosseri has repeatedly noted, from the beginning, that Threads will not be a place for discussion news and politics. Just after the app launched, Mosseri noted that “there are more than enough amazing communities – sports, music, fashion, beauty, entertainment, etc. – to make a vibrant platform without needing to get into politics or hard news.” Which sounds a lot more like Instagram than a real-time social app. Tweets about the latest beauty trends aren’t what drove engagement in that app.
Back in December, Mosseri ruled out launching chronological search sorting tools in the app, due to concerns that it would quickly be flooded with spam. Yet, being able to sort chronologically, and track trending topics, is a key value proposition of Twitter, now X, and you definitely can’t keep up with real-time discussion on Threads the same as you can in X. Interestingly, the Threads team did actually release a prototype of this functionality a few weeks later, before rolling it back, which would suggest that there is some debate among the Threads team on this element.
Earlier this month, Mosseri said that, in his view, features like trending topics won’t have a big impact on Threads’ growth. Mosseri’s perspective is that while tools like this may be important to “power users”, they’re not to everybody else, and if Threads wants to grow its community, it’s better off focusing on other elements. Which would be true for IG, again, where topical communities are the focus, but for a real-time discussion platform?

Essentially, Mosseri seems to be missing the point of the key value proposition of a real-time discussion app, in that you need to be able to tap into real-time discussions as they’re happening, as opposed to an Instagram-like system, where users are more looking to browse and be engaged by different content.

What it seems like is that Meta is trying to make Threads into what it wants it to be, a complementary community-building tool for Instagram creators, in order to facilitate real-time engagement, leaning into broader trends around private group engagement, but in public instead.

Maybe, that’s ultimately the value proposition for Threads, but that’s not what most Threads users, I would suggest, have been seeking.

Though that is, at least in part, what Mosseri has outlined for the app from the beginning.

On launch, Mosseri explained that:

Obviously, Twitter pioneered the space, and there are a lot of good offerings out there for public conversations. But just given everything that was going on, we thought there was an opportunity to build something that was open and something that was good for the community that was already using Instagram.”

Note that last point, “the community that was already using Instagram.”

In Mosseri’s view, it seems that Threads is more of an IG add-on, as opposed to a standalone Twitter alternative, while Zuckerberg has also reiterated that they want to make Threads different to what Twitter had been, and X now is.

The goal is to keep it friendly as it expands. I think it’s possible and will ultimately be the key to its success. That’s one reason why Twitter never succeeded as much as I think it should have, and we want to do it differently.”

The question now is: “Do people really want a nice, friendly platform for discussion?”

Or instead, is Threads set to lose interest because it’s not a Twitter replacement?

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