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Sexy new Threads or daggy dad pants: Here's Zuckerberg’s latest distraction

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The online world still waits in anticipation for the proposed fight between Elon Musk (left) and Mark Zuckerberg (Screenshot via YouTube)

For all its intended good, social media has become less of a place for healthy, online debate and is now an irrational place where emotions run rampant, writes Dr Alex Vickery-Howe.

WE'VE SEEN Musk vs Reznor and Musk vs King.

Now, we’re up to the final level.

This is the big one.

Zuckerberg vs Musk.

I’m here for it. Pass the Maltesers.

This is a war to monetise our chitchat. Or possibly our ideology, if you want to be sinister. The battleground is split between Elon Musk’s now X-rated birdcage and Mark Zuckerberg’s predictably bland wardrobe. Winner takes all. Just kidding. Winner takes F-all. Both apps are unlikely to survive the winter.

Alright, let’s get this out of the way. I know Threads is probably meant to be about conversational threads or threads in computer operating systems rather than clothes, just as I know Poke is about nudging a friend to talk and not... well, you know. But I’m sure we’re all now thinking about Zuckerberg’s identical grey Y-fronts. It’s not a great start for the brand.

Yet, a viable alternative to Twitter is a welcome relief from the manic bluebird and the increasingly vile worldview it merrily chirps from behind our screens. Others have pointed out, sagely, that ‘staring at a bull ant on your windowsill is a viable alternative to Twitter’. The same goes for Zoom meetings. And grading university papers. Really, bull ants are underrated.

But I’ll take any rivalry, any penis joust, any half-assed challenge to Musk’s twisted idea of a decent conversation. Someone needs to build a new town square. Even a lame one where people are nice to each other. It’ll suck, but it’ll be better than a Klan rally.

When I think of Twitter, having finally left my lukewarm bubble bath of despair to reengage with actual society, Bowie’s This Is Not Americaoften features on my internal soundtrack. It plays when I think of bigotry, bans, book burnings and everything America wasn’t supposed to be, but now is.

Bowie’s refrain haunts me. This is not America. This is not democracy.

This is – at best – the Weimar Republic — too smug to see the Holocaust coming.

A reoccurring event in the birdcage is users telling each other, “People watching this thread need to know the TRUTH!”, as though X (I’ll never get used to that) were less a town square and more a Roman colosseum where crowds throng and froth.

This concept all feels rather grandiose for what usually amounts to me, a middling academic half-drunk on Moscato, typing with some basement-dwelling “climate sceptic” who is furious that no journal will publish his “genius”, while lying to himself that raving deliriously and bitterly to people he’ll never meet is a substitute for actual research. Actual expertise. Actual work. Sadly for both unstable egos, nobody is ever watching. They’re too busy arguing elsewhere.

Another reoccurring war cry is “Nobody will ever listen to you!” or “You don’t matter!” True enough. In a soup of squealing strangers, this is certainly accurate, but it speaks to where social media apps, the tech giants behind them – and perhaps the internet itself – have all swung so violently off the rails.

No matter the intention, no matter the substance, there is nothing heroic about intimidating your enemies into capitulation, drowning them out with mob rule, or deciding any perspective should be labelled “irrelevant”. Factually inaccurate, sure, and facts do matter. That’s the position from which many ill-fated cyber arguments begin, or certainly many of mine. Yet we all lose our momentum and our high ground once we abandon logic to instead let those hot cheeks and thudding hearts do the talking for us.

It’s not healthy.

It’s precisely what bad operators want.

Our extremism – sometimes for compassionate causes, sometimes for selfish needs, most often for selfish needs we trick ourselves into believing are compassionate causes – has made us vulnerable. We have let ourselves be divided in the virtual world. Now the actual world is breaking.

More and more nutso candidates are being welcomed into mainstream political discourse. Donald Trump has stopped dining with assholes and welcomed Nazis to his table instead. I would say “Nazi sympathisers” but a Nazi sympathiser is just a Nazi who lets others commit the murders for them. Musk would call this a “psyop”, but Musk is a monkey-murdering, Putin-excusing, perpetually unhinged finger puppet. His platform is hardly above doing a little pro-Nazi PR. By the way, what has Kyle Rittenhouse been doing lately?

Once you start banning or burning books, you stop being a reasonable human. You stop participating in society. Who cares how noble you feel, how justified — you’ve become exactly the authoritarian asswipe you think you’re fighting. This is how dishonest, manipulative people seize the opportunity to take advantage of division and distort history to recast Hitler as part of the political left, or a corrupt adulterer as Jesus II (besides Aliens, Muppets Most Wanted and The Empire Strikes Back, sequels rarely measure up).

It’s all very dumb. It’s off-the-scale ignorant. It’s intellectually embarrassing. But, emotionally, these and other radically stupid ideas often gain ground online when rational debate is silenced.

And that’s why Twitter sucks now. The birdcage is about emotion. Not ideas. Not dialogue. It’s about making us all as unreasonable and irrational as possible. We need to feel righteous, even when we’re spreading things we haven’t bothered to fact-check.

It’s not just Nazis. Ordinary people are doing it, too. Most of us are guilty of taking vicarious pleasure in the misfortune of others. Me included. I should’ve just told my “climate sceptic” opponents to have another fistful of Cheerios, sing out to mother for a fresh glass of chocolate milk and go back to their – in practical terms – inoffensive lives. Better yet, I could’ve gotten to know them beyond the stereotypical images in my elitist brain.

In the real world, I would have.

Overall, I welcome Zuckerberg’s warmer, friendlier piazza. It may lack the drama of Musk’s feral aviary, it may amount to just another pale shadow of meaningful face-to-face interaction, but, if there’s a place to type inanities free of the Third Reich, I’m all for it. Maybe we’re up to the Fourth Reich now? I don't know.

More than anything, I’m all for this reminder that we don’t have to cancel each other out to have a discussion. That is never the way. I remember when we imagined the internet was all about communicating and sharing. I’m trapped in 1998 in many ways, but this is – I think – one of the more understandable ones. Let’s put the Cheerios down and start assuming goodwill in others.

When we muzzle our fellow humans, we leave the door open for trolls.

Dr Alex Vickery-Howe is an award-winning playwright and social commentator. He teaches creative writing, screen and drama at Flinders University. You can follow Alex on Twitter @AlexVickeryHowe.

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