Threads can become the ‘purest form’ of social media as long as Meta and Mark Zuckerberg agree to one thing, says tech exec


Meta has an unprecedented and unexpected opportunity to turn its new ad-free Twitter-like service Threads into the “purest form” of social media. The cost of doing so, however, is steep: Operating the app as a loss leader alongside the company’s other social media brands including Facebook and Instagram. 

The advice to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is from Eric Wittman, president of VSCO, a social media app that gained brief popularity in 2019. He adds: “Don’t see this as an opportunity to generate direct revenue. See it as an opportunity to generate goodwill, with the billions of people on the planet.” 

Meta premiered Threads earlier this month as an alternative to Elon Musk’s Twitter, which has since changed its name to X. It gained immediate momentum with 30 million sign ups in its first day and 100 million within a week. But in its second week, Threads’ daily active users fell by 70%, according to the Wall Street Journal. Wittman believes social media apps like Threads, Twitter, and Facebook, all start out with the intention of connecting people but then lose their way once they start juicing their algorithms to incentivize users to spend more time on the platform.  

“Meta has a pattern when they have an app,” Wittman tells Fortune in an interview. “Usually it’s free for a while, then the algorithms start to get implemented and people’s behavior tends to get changed or manipulated. Then the ads come—that’s where it generally kind of turns into more of a problem.” 

To boost engagement, social platforms end up prioritizing content that drives clicks above all else, regardless of the consequences it might have on users. “Content that tends to be more provocative, more negative ends up driving more engagement and keeping people more active on the application,” Wittman says. “It’s not healthy.” 

VSCO, which became known for its user base of female teens, known as VSCO girls, doesn’t feature ads. Instead it sells users memberships to access upgraded features. 

Things “delove” as Wittman put it, once social media companies are faced with the economic reality of having to sell ads. And it’s a very lucrative reality. Meta had $59.6 billion in ad sales during the first sixth months of this year. Wittman compared the company to the television business, where “it’s all about eyeballs.” 

The goodwill of prioritizing “the health and well-being of the online community, especially younger folks” over an algorithm that promotes engagement—even in its most toxic formswouldn’t just extend to the general public, according to Wittman, but also to lawmakers who have called for regulating social media. Keeping Threads ad-free could “give under-informed folks across the political scale a better understanding of how this can be healthy and how it can be helpful,” he says. 

Public officials have become more pointed in their criticisms of social media’s downsides. In May, the Surgeon General’s office released an advisory about social media’s harmful effects on youth mental health. In the U.S., lawmakers from both political parties have been critical of Meta since its role in the 2016 Cambridge Analytica scandal. A U.N. report in 2018 said Facebook’s algorithms played a “determining” role in promoted ethnic violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar; a similar accusation was leveled at WhatsApp when it became a breeding ground for anti-Muslim hate crimes in India

Both Zuckerberg and head of Instagram Adam Mosseri have said Threads will remain ad-free for the foreseeable future. “Our approach will be the same as all our other products,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Threads post earlier this month. “Make the product work well first, then see if we can get it on a clear path to 1 billion people, and only then think about monetization at that point.”

Wittman hopes Zuckerberg and Meta keep that approach even past the one billion user mark. “Really why Mark started Facebook—or The Facebook back in the day—was just to connect people in a healthy and positive way,” he says. 

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.