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6 Jul

What Marshall McLuhan would say about Threads, an Instagram app

I remember Naval Ravikant has this tweet where he says:

“Generally, new platforms win by cultivating their own native creators, not by porting existing creators.”

Facebook recently launched a new app called Threads. The app works by signing up with your existing Instagram profile and is basically a copy of Twitter, save a few minor tweaks like not showing the number of people an account is following.

Now, I have some thoughts about why Threads will not be able to compete with Twitter.

But to save myself from any criticism that's going to come my way, I will posit that this is how Marshall McLuhan, the famous media theorist and prophet of the 20th century, would think about it.

Platform DNA

Instagram, when it launched, had a strong photography DNA where it attracted the best photographers to post on the platform. These photographers turned into superstars on Instagram, and were the first native creators Instagram cultivated.

Likewise with Twitter. Initially launched as a microblogging platform, it attracted people who had good thoughts and ideas and had the ability to articulate them well. Many accounts grew their audience natively on Twitter, without bringing in followers and fame from the external world.

Also goes for Vine and Tiktok. These platforms, with their unique content format (short-form video), engendered their own superstar creators who weren't known before the advent of these platforms.

The famous phrase “The medium is the message” by McLuhan can be very relevant in this context.According to McLuhan, the way that we communicate has as much, if not more, influence on the effects of the communication as the content itself.

McLuhan saw media as an extension of ourselves. He suggested that every new technology or medium is an extension of human capabilities, senses or faculties, emphasizing not just the content but the medium itself.

Instagram extended our visual faculty, Twitter our fleeting thoughts and the ability to articulate them, and TikTok our sense of live performance, motion, and fun.

In this sense, Threads' medium extension isn't clear as it seems to simply replicate Twitter's text-based expression while pulling in creators who are more visually oriented.

With Threads, it's just majorly porting Instagram creators. (Some celebs who were disgruntled with Elon Musk and Twitter are now migrating to Threads, but I'm not sure if it's just the novelty or if they're going to last on the platform.)

Instagram creators are majorly people who use the visual format as an extension and expression of their creativity. They're not writers. So how can they suddenly turn into microbloggers? More importantly, why would I, someone who is interested in reading ideas, follow the same people I followed on Instagram, not for their ideas but for their audio-visual content that was more aesthetic and performative in nature?

It doesn't make sense. But I'm hoping for things to change and the signal-to-noise ratio improve on the platform, and also the image-to-text ratio.

Introducing a new paradigm in content

Every social media platform builds a unique DNA by introducing a new paradigm in content.Instagram did it for photos, Twitter did it via microblogging, TikTok and Vine did it via short-form video, and Facebook did it for social media and friendships itself.

In fact, precisely because these platforms were opinionated about content formats that they could cultivate native creators who achieved superstar status because they could wield this content format in highly creative ways.

Twitter arguably made people excellent at the aphoristic style of writing, and also, shitposting comical/intrusive thoughts. It also gave rise to a new genre of puns and comedy.

TikTok, with its constraints, led to creators coming up with insane video transitions, just by pausing and resuming recording within the app. When I first saw some of the behind-the-scenes videos around how TikTok'ers were creating these cool transitions without any fancy software or equipment, it was a profound moment for me. It made me realize that constraints truly foster flabbergasting creativity.

In short, all of these platforms (except Facebook, perhaps) were opinionated about the kind of content they wanted users to post on the platform — at least when they started.

In his theory, McLuhan distinguished between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ media. ‘Hot’ media are high-definition communication formats that require less involvement from the audience, like photography or movies. In contrast, ‘cool’ media are low-definition and require high participation, like text-based content, where the audience fills in the gaps.

Instagram, with its focus on visuals, can be categorized as a hot medium. Twitter, with its text-heavy nature, is a cool medium. Asking Instagram creators, who are used to the hot medium, to suddenly start creating in a cool medium could lead to a mismatch in creator abilities and audience expectations.Threads, as it is today, is a confused mess — where existing Instagram creators who got popular due to their photos and videos are now expected to woo an audience who followed them for that kind of content with words.

Not only will this lead to many creators just posting photos on Threads instead of what the platform is intended for — writing — but it will create a lot of noise because their audience doesn't get words as much as they get visuals.

Platforms as subcultures

If you think about platforms as subcultures, it is very easy to spot an outsider on Twitter who doesn't know its unspoken rules. Twitter OGs will know exactly what I'm referring to.

If you see, a while ago, Substack also launched Notes, which is quite similar to Twitter. But in Substack's case, I think it works beautifully!

Because the platform is porting existing Substack authors who are already good with words. So Notes by Substack is now actually much higher signal for nerds like me than Twitter itself where the signal-to-noise ratio is lower. It allows for a subculture of Substack writers to develop and creates opportunities for them to engage more productively around the content of their essays.

In this regard, McLuhan believed that each medium creates its own “environment” that affects the society's perceptions and behaviors, and that every environment when stretched to its limit flips into its “anti-environment” revealing the previous environment's hidden characteristics.

Twitter's environment of brevity and spontaneity might be considered an anti-environment to traditional blogging's long-form and deliberate nature. Instagram's visual-heavy environment is the anti-environment to the text-heavy world of Twitter.

Threads, by trying to graft Instagram creators into a Twitter-like environment, risks creating an incoherent mix that lacks a clear identity. But for Substack, Notes allows existing authors to discuss peripheral ideas and footnotes that they may not have covered in their essays. It is pretty much aligned with their identity. And this makes total sense because Substack has gotten a lot of its early user base from Twitter.

Now, Notes is just a better, more productive Twitter for Substack authors.

I don't think I can say this for Instagram creators.

The Tetrad

The Tetrad of media effects is a conceptual tool Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric McLuhan developed. I think it's quite useful to examine the effects a medium (which can be any extension of ourselves, including technologies, languages, art forms, etc.) has on society and human behavior.

The tetrad consists of four laws, each asking a key question about the medium:

Enhancement:What does the medium amplify or intensify? This could be a human function, a sense, or a capability. For instance, the telephone enhances our ability to communicate over long distances.

Obsolescence:What does the medium push aside or render obsolete? This could be a previous medium, a skill, or a behavior. Using the telephone example, it made the telegram obsolete. Basically Delta-4, but for communication.

Retrieval:What does the medium recover or retrieve that had been pushed aside by earlier innovations? This often represents a return to a characteristic or quality that was previously lost or diminished. For instance, email and instant messaging retrieved the ability to have written conversations, a trait that had lost prominence with the advent of telephonic conversations.

Reversal: When pushed to its limits, what does the medium flip into? This is typically the opposite or a negative outcome when the medium is overextended. For example, when mobile phones are overused, they can flip into a form of constant distraction and a source of stress.The tetrad helps to look at the medium from multiple angles, capturing a broader range of its effects.

To make things clearer, let's apply McLuhan's Tetrad to Twitter.


Twitter amplified the ability to share thoughts and ideas instantly and globally, promoting real-time conversation and discussion. It enhanced brevity and conciseness due to its character limit — which gave rise to multiple new kinds of content, the best example being interlinking threads of tweets to create a tapestry of interwoven ideas.


Twitter pushed aside long-form blog posts and traditional news sources as primary means of getting real-time news and updates. It also made obsolete the notion that public figures and organizations are distant and inaccessible, given how they use Twitter for direct communication.


Twitter retrieved some aspects of the oral tradition of storytelling, where brevity and conciseness mattered. The character limit encouraged a kind of telegraphic speech that echoed the way SMS'es and telegrams were once sent. It also retrieved the immediacy and spontaneity of face-to-face conversation in the public sphere. That is why many called it the “town square.”


When overused or used irresponsibly, Twitter can and does flip into a platform promoting superficial understanding (due to its brevity), misinformation, and echo chambers (as people tend to follow like-minded individuals). It has also lead to cancel culture and online harassment.

Similarly, you could create a Tetrad for Instagram.


When it started, Instagram enhanced visual communication and sharing, emphasizing aesthetic presentation. It allowed users to document their life experiences, thoughts, and ideas through photos and videos. The people it attracted first, naturally, were photographers and generally those who were interested in communicating using the medium of photographs.


Instagram made traditional photo albums and photo-sharing methods obsolete. It also challenged traditional advertising with the rise of influencers who could now flaunt their lifestyles easily and in high resolution using photographs and videos.


Instagram retrieved the age-old appeal of visual storytelling and the sharing of personal life events. It harkened back to the era of physical photo albums and scrapbooking, albeit in a digital format.


Overuse of Instagram has lead to issues such as an unhealthy focus on outward appearances and comparison culture. It has also fostered a sense of artificiality, as users often feel pressured to present an overly curated or edited version of their life.

But now, if you were to think of a Tetrad for Threads, things would suddenly not be quite straightforward.

Threads might be seen to enhance the ability for Instagram creators to engage in more text-based discussion and provide a longer narrative to their visual content or just allow them to indulge in some fun shitposting. You might even say it provides Instagram users an avenue for longer, microblogging-style communication which Instagram's format doesn't readily support.

But I think that's a stretch, honestly. Shitposting isn't easy to do well. And the ones who are good at it are doing it already on Twitter. Threads may simply be for crossposting, then?

In terms of obsolence, as it's attempting to blend elements of Instagram and Twitter, it might make switching between these platforms obsolete for some users. However, it's hard to pinpoint a unique aspect it could render obsolete, as its success hinges on whether it can add value beyond what these two platforms already offer individually. So again, ┐( ̄ヮ ̄)┌?

You could say that Threads might offer Instagram users an ability to write more about the context or stories behind their photos or videos. But aren't captions enough for that? What does Threads add to the picture? Interlinking threads of photos, leading to a new style of storytelling, perhaps? This is the most interesting bit in my opinion and something I look forward to, if anyone does it.

Parting thoughts

Of course, there are many other business angles to explore here: the distribution and ad revenue angle, the e-commerce angle, the “Twitter without all the nastiness” angle or the “Twitter without the anonymity” angle, but I'm roleplaying McLuhan, remember?

All the rest remains to be seen, including how many Twitter celebs, entrepreneurs, VCs, prime ministers and presidents, journalists, and other creators Threads can borrow from Twitter. Just from a Media Theory lens, I don't think Threads makes a lot of sense for users and it might just turn into another Facebook, soon enough. And that too won't be too welcome by youngsters who have private Instagram accounts that they wish to protect from their family gaze.

Anyway, we'll see how things unfold. Let's hope for more interestingness and novelty that Twitter and Instagram by themselves couldn't create!

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