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Notes, Threads, and Making Meaning Online
What do we really want from the platforms we use? And how do we create meaning online? And have you signed up for Threads? I asked Jay Acunzo.
This is a tale of two platforms. One I jumped on without hesitation and one to which I immediately said, "hell no."
But what today's essay is really about is what we're looking for from the category we call "social media" and how we think about achieving those ends.
And perhaps what it's really, really about is how we go looking for and creating meaning in the digital sphere.
Listen to this piece & my conversation with Jay Acunzo wherever you listen to podcasts.
I'd been low-key considering a move to Substack since 2021.
I was already subscribed to a bunch of newsletters from writers I love. And I was really intrigued by the discovery and growth features baked into the platform itself.
But inertia is real.
And, I stuck with how I'd published my newsletter for more than a decade. That is, I wrote a post on my WordPress-powered website, copied it over to ConvertKit, my email service provider, and then hit send.
It wasn't broken—so why fix it?
Then Substack launched Notes. As soon as I got the email, I began my relocation project. I just couldn't ignore the upside of belonging to the writer community here anymore.
If you've heard about Notes, you're already a Substack power user, or you heard about Elon Musk having a temper tantrum, assuming that it was designed to compete with Twitter.
It's clear that Notes wasn't designed to be a Twitter killer.
What it was designed to do was to make it easier for writers to connect with each other, talk about their work, and share smaller, well, notes that they didn't necessarily want to send out in a full-fledged email. And my experience of those features has been delightful.
In the first week or two of moving to Substack, I spent a good bit of time engaging with Notes.1 But as time has passed, I've gotten into a good routine of sharing, connecting, and commenting almost daily—but without the time encroaching on deeper work. Even that small shift, though, was what I needed to stop feeling any desire to go to Instagram.
For any listeners who know my Instagram content from the last couple of years, that's probably come as a bit of a surprise. I sunk a lot of time and energy into creating the best content I possibly could for that platform. My audience grew there as a result. But the opportunity cost just became too great. I knew that I could easily do more long-form writing if I dropped the six hours a week, at least, that I spent making content for Instagram. And I knew that more long-form writing would do more for me than any number of Instagram posts ever could.
Instagram ceased being a place where I wanted to construct meaning.
It was never meant for the kind of meaning-making that I do—and I was always struggling to bend its constraints to my will. But Substack was a place designed to facilitate meaning-making in the way I work best. It's a place where I can easily connect with others who work in similar ways and think about similar things.
So far, my only regret has been that I didn't move to Substack a couple of years ago. Oh, well.
As I said, when I got the email from Substack announcing Notes, I was ready to jump. But when I heard about Meta's new app, Threads, I had the complete opposite reaction. Ironically, I first heard about it on Notes via Casey Newton at Platformer.
Earlier, I said it was a "hell no," but really, my reaction was more like, "eh, I'll pass." But of course, over 100 million people had the opposite reaction. One of them is podcaster, speaker, and writer Jay Acunzo. When I saw his LinkedIn post about finding him on Threads, I knew I wanted to talk. Jay and I don't agree on everything social media-related (I’ll highlight one of those differences on Monday), but we do share very similar foundational beliefs about online content.
So I sent him a LinkedIn message—"Any chance you've got time early next week to talk about Threads?" Luckily, he agreed. I asked him what went through his head when he heard about Threads.
His reply: "Ugh, again?!"
There have been a bunch of new platforms hit the market since the Musk-ification of Twitter began at the end of 2022. But Threads, unsurprisingly, has left them all in the dust in terms of traction and scale.
Threads piggybacks on Instagram's user base—so it has a decided leg up on the competition. So lots of people have joined just because it's there and it's easy. But I knew Jay would have thought about his decision to download yet another app more than the average Threads user.
After the initial "ugh, again?!" reaction ran its course, he paused and realized that it was something he could "fit into the nooks and crannies." Instead of the highly polished, carefully cultivated content he typically produces, like his podcast and newsletter, Threads could be something more casual, more spontaneous. He told me he was attracted to the text-only format and the opportunity to creatively constrain himself to one topic area.
"I've always kind of envied those people who were like, 'I just want to obsess over this one thing and kind of be a maniac about,'" explained Jay. Threads felt like a place he could try that hyper-focus on for size.
Now, did I mention that Jay was on vacation when Threads dropped? No? Well, Jay was on vacation when he signed up for Threads. Picking up on the intense skepticism in my voice, Jay reminded me that he was two little kids who go to bed very early. So he and his wife don't have much to do after about 7pm. "It didn't feel like I was taking a break from vacation to do work," he clarified.
Instead, Jay approached Threads in the spirit of tinkering and playing. He treated it as "a low-stakes and distantly professional thing that I was working on."2 He also noticed that his friends and colleagues were hopping on. "There was a social component," he told me, "Not in the social media sense, but in the actual social component of people you like to connect with."
What are we even doing here? from wrote a great little piece about Threads on Monday called, "Threads is a mecca of Millennial brain rot." I still don't quite know what that means, but I think that's sort of the point. What does this all mean? Does it mean anything?
What are we doing here?
Anyhow, Lindsay wrote about her initial excitement for a platform that would feel like primal Twitter. But instead, her first impressions of the app were that the same crap from the rest of the internet had already made its way onto Threads. I think the argument could be made that the vapid conversation starts, internet cliches, and brands pretending to be people were always already existing, as the phenomenologists would say. They're old magic from before the dawn of Threads time.
Given the opportunity to build the social media culture we say we’ve been missing, we immediately resorted to posting the worst clichés from today’s internet. Is this post from a person, or a brand? Because they’re both employing the same hokey syntax to post empty engagement-bait.
This behavior says something about how we view social media now. It’s not for connection, but performance.
I completely track what Lindsay is saying here. For instance, the few people I've seen doing Twitter things on Notes made me super anxious. Like, 'Oh no! Are we really going to do this here?' Luckily, those posts have been few and far between—at least in my feed.
I think Jay's tolerance for this kind of performance is much higher than mine—or, as he told me, he just doesn't consume that much social media. But that doesn't mean he can shrug off all manner of performative ick.
I asked Jay how he thinks about the performance component of social media today—and specifically, how Threads fits into it. He told me that being a performer is part of who he is. He's a public speaker, author, podcaster—he loves to perform. I also love to perform. "Performance itself is not a bad thing," he explained. Jay believes that we're not all talking about the same thing when we label something "performative"—and I completely agree.
"I think what you mean [by performative]," Jay glossed, "is maybe there's like a little veneer or a thick veneer of 'ick' factor to the way you're showing up." He pointed to how we react to people who are puffing themselves up, trying to make themselves look more successful or expert than they really are. "You see some creators putting a nickname in quotes for themselves in their social bios. 'The Podcast Guy'—it's like, what are we doing?" I had a good laugh at this and then a bigger laugh when Jay continued, "This is like I'm back in middle school taking a 3-point jump shot going, 'Call me White Lightning!' Like, what is happening? No one gave you that nick name and putting it into quotes makes it feel worse."
Social media is performative. So is everyday life—online or offline.
The discourse around social media tends to pit performativity against authenticity. Either you're being authentic—your true self, warts and all—or you're performing in the hopes of attracting attention.
But I'm with the existentialists on this one: there is no such thing as the "true self."3 There is no inalienable core underneath all of the layers of social conditioning, economic pressure, and role fulfillment. We are who we make ourselves to be at any given moment.
That is, authenticity is how we respond to our circumstances and limitations in good faith. Authenticity is a performance.
Performativity has a different connotation in contemporary philosophy and linguistics than it does in the wider culture.
It doesn't mean fake, or showy, or self-aggrandizing. Performativity4 first entered the realm of theory in J. L. Austin's book, How to Do Things With Words, in 1962. Austin explains how some speech acts describe things as they are, while other speech acts shape and change the world.
And Judith Butler used Austin's notion of performativity in their exploration of gender performance. We don't "have" gender, argues Butler, we do and make gender. It's an identity formed in and performed for social context rather than something we are born with.
And I think that the "social context" bit is instructive here. When Jay talks about the "ick factor" of people puffing themselves up, coming up with their own nicknames, declaring themselves to have the formula for x, y, or z result, the performance is siloed, individual. It doesn't feel authentic because it's not social. It's not the product of interaction, context, or intersubjectivity; it's the contentless invention of solipsism.
Social media gave us tools for discovering social context across barriers that had once seemed insurmountable.
We tried on all sorts of roles—some stuck, others didn't. The identities that stuck are the ones that felt "right" to us and found a resonant social context. The ones that stuck created bonds between ourselves and others.
To be clear, I'm not talking about gatekeeping identity through other citizens of the internet. I'm not suggesting that your identity isn't "true" if someone else doesn't deem it so. What I mean is that it was through this new-ish social context that identities took on substance and solidity in ways that simply weren't feasible before.
We want to, need to, be recognized—and social media gave us a place to be recognized. We make meaning through those social interactions and social contexts. Our identities take on greater weight as they are recognized and engaged with in the social sphere.
I chose Notes because it is the kind of social interaction I needed to give a set of my own identities more solidity. Jay chose Threads because it is a form of social interaction that helps him perform an aspect of his identity that he wants to lend more substance to.
Performing within the social context helps to build bonds.
Jay told me that our mutual palframed the intersubjectivity of social media connections this way: "first, they come for your content; then, they come for you; and then, finally, they come for what you represent." It's a process of not only building trust or recognizing value—but also a process of mutual meaning-making.
The "ick" factor comes when people try to leapfrog the process. In other words, if I constantly tell you what I represent, but I don't show you how I represent that, it feels hollow and uncanny.
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So what's next?
I didn't want to ask Jay to predict the future of Threads. Nor do I want to predict the future of Substack and Notes. But Jay, rightfully, was ready to predict the future—it's going to get shitty.
"It's not hard to predict where this is going to go," he explained. "It's going to have a beautiful little moment... [and then] it's going to get shitty because the model dictates it." Jay referenced Cory Doctorow's description of the "enshittification" of the internet. I've mentioned it a few times here before, but if you haven't read Doctorow's piece, I highly recommend it. Essentially, there is an utterly predictable process that platforms go through to first attract users, then attract advertisers, and then squeeze everyone to deliver surplus value to shareholders.
This is the real challenge of using online tools for social interaction and performance—the money has to come from somewhere. For all of the legacy platforms, that means ads. And ads require data. And data is most legible (and valuable) if it's flat and predictive. Meaning platforms would rather you become a two-dimensional representation of yourself with formulaic social connections rather than perform the odd mix of identities you hold across multiple groups of people.
And this is where I have to hand it to Substack. Substack chose a business model that prioritizes the success of its writers. It makes money when I make money. They are incentivized to introduce my work to people who will love it and upgrade their subscription (maybe you?). Those features are built in to the platform.
Is it perfect? No! But I'd rather be "in bed" with a company whose goals are aligned with mine than one that will inevitably spiral into enshittification.
That said, I think Jay's thinking on why he's on Threads even though it's going to get shitty—and probably much, much sooner than later—is solid. He has a clear purpose for the time he spends there and an identity he wants to explore and give substance to. That's meaningful even in its ephemerality.
Actually, it reminds me of Kate Tyson's essay, "Queer Failure." Just because something has a beginning and an end doesn't mean it's devoid of meaning. Just because you hop on Threads for a few months before you try something new doesn't mean your time there was meaningless.
Substack and Notes are meaningful to me because it's a digital space where I can perform the sort of intellectual writer identity I've wanted to hold for so long. It is an extension of a project of meaning-making that I've been engaged in for more than 20 years now. Substack is one conduit for that meaning-making, but it probably won't be the last.
I'm sure you knew going into this piece that I wasn't going to break Threads or Notes down into a tidy list of pros and cons.
I don't think it's a bad thing to be on Threads—but, as I said, I'm going to pass. I also don't think you should be on Substack or Notes.
Ultimately, I think Threads—and the host of platforms trying to break into the market—is most interesting as a way to explore the question of what we really want from social media—and how we might behave in order to make that real. And that's a solid social media strategy regardless of what platforms you give your time and attention to.
Meaning, like gender or race, is socially constructed. We make it. We perform it. It exists because of the ways we interact with the world and those who inhabit it. If we want more meaning on social media or anywhere else and less of the superficial ick factor, it's our job to behave in a way that makes that meaning real.
The platforms can give us the technology—but only we can make it meaningful.
As I re-read this for like the eighth time, it dawns on me that treating any social media platform like it’s “high stakes” is the root of so many problems. If you assume that your success is banking on what you post to Instagram or LinkedIn, it’s going to suck. Not only because that’s too much pressure to put on yourself, but also because it’s just not true.
This feels like the heretical thing I can write within the general category of personal development. You’re welcome to disagree with me—but I stand by my claim.