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Uncritical mass, critical branding

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JULY 13, 2023

Recently, Meta Platforms Inc., formerly known as Facebook, very publicly launched a Twitter competitor.

Mark Zuckerberg’s app Threads amassed over 100 million new accounts thus far. Many prominent users such as celebrities, pundits and entertainers have created accounts on the platform. Some have even explicitly migrated to Threads, swearing off Twitter entirely.

Threads, which requires an Instagram account to sign up, brings users into the Metaverse ecosystem. As put it in the Facebook origin story “The Social Network:”

“Users are fickle, Friendster has proved that. Even a few people leaving would reverberate through the entire user-base. The users are interconnected, that is the whole point. College kids are online because their friends are online, and if one domino goes, the other dominos go, don’t you get that?”

This is the concept of “critical mass” that gets ingrained into us computer science majors. Critical mass is the theory that there needs to be a minimum number of users for technology to take off.

Cryptocurrencies only hold value if people are trading — and thus mining — them. Multiplayer video games will only be played if enough players are on the same servers. Most of all, social media apps only become popular if all your friends and family are on it.

This is what makes technology unique — and tricky to regulate. Unlike the restaurant industry where consumers seek variety, technology and social media have value precisely because everyone is on the same platform.

Yet this very paradigm of critical mass that has been instilled in me and so many other techies by business news, professors, colleagues and even movies is being shattered. A titan of social media is splintering before our very eyes.

However, this is certainly not because of any technological factors. After all, how much difference can there really be between Threads and Twitter? 

There are slight differences for sure: Threads allow more characters and larger file sizes, while Twitter has a hashtag system. But fundamentally, both are the same. You read short texts written by the people you follow. Sometimes there’s media attached to it. You scroll down for more content. Maybe you like a post or two and share it with others — this helps the algorithm learn what you’re interested in.

Regardless of their similar functions, the real value driving all of this is branding.

When Elon Musk purchased Twitter for $44 billion, he wasn’t buying the algorithm behind it — he was buying the cultural brand that is Twitter. Musk purchased the phenomenon that ingrained phrases such as “Let me Tweet that!” and “I saw that on Twitter!” into our collective lexicon.

Meta isn’t competing for more reliable servers or a more intuitive user interface. Zuckerberg’s big challenge will be getting people to say, “I Threaded that meme!”

Part of this cultural branding is ideological in nature. Twitter and Threads will join the likes of My Pillow and Ben & Jerry’s in the growing trend of companies that signal their virtues.

Musk’s Twitter promises to be a free speech platform, taking a laissez-faire approach to content moderation despite the subjective risk of “hate speech.” Threads is widely presumed to become the de facto replacement for the Jack Dorsey era of Twitter, with explicit community guidelines that cater to a more progressive audience.

Another facet of branding is the cult of personality surrounding the owners. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are lionized as genius entrepreneurs, which is not unusual in American business culture. Both have founded, managed and grown impressive companies, some of which us techies dream of working for. Users might be driven to sign up as fans, just like someone might purchase Nike or Adidas cleats depending on whether they like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi better.

Business rivalries are amusing and good for competition. Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs, Carl Icahn versus Bill Ackman, and now Musk versus Zuckerberg. There’s even a rumor that Musk and Zuckerberg will engage in a boxing match.

Regardless of the underlying motivations to choose one or the other (or both), it is fascinating watching this transformation unfold. As a news nerd, it is nothing short of amazing in my opinion.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that software would eventually become a brand. This has happened to so many other American products and services. What really is the difference between the Silverado and the F-150? The Big Mac and the Whopper? Geico’s Gecko and Progressive’s Flo?

Subtle differences, surely. Some gaps are bigger than others, but each element in each pair competes to fulfill the same fundamental purpose.

The bigger question is: Why wouldn’t this happen with social media apps? The answer we used to receive was “because of critical mass.” Now, it’s a little bit more nuanced.

Rafael Arbex-Murut writes the Thursday column about current events. Contact the opinion desk at[email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

JULY 13, 2023