Yesterday, I mentioned I was interested in the media narrative surrounding the introduction of Instagram Threads. I wanted to expand on what I’m looking for, and to do that, I need to start with some mass communications theory.
I’m a Ph.D. student that mostly researches visual effects, but I’ve taken a few classes that look at how media effects work. There are levels to media effects, but essentially, you can break it into three types of effects.1
- Agenda Setting tells you what to think about.
- Framing tells you how to think about it.
- Priming prompts you to take an action.
Everyone teaches this a little differently, but this is how I like to think about it. As I look at how the media covers Instagram’s Thread, I think it’s worth thinking about the coverage in these terms.
The media is very good and setting the “agenda” for what people are thinking about. If the media you watch or read is covering a topic, you are more likely to care about the topic.
We know that the tech media like The Verge have picked up the thread and predictably, tech circles online are discussing what Instagram Threads will mean for social media and the Fediverse. This is agenda setting in action.
But will the mass media cover it? Will the CNN website run a story about Instagram Threads? Will The NY Times run an explainer about how to use Threads? Will South-Carolina-native and all-around good guy Craig Melvin talk about Threads on the Today Show? I don’t know.
While “agenda setting” sounds a little nefarious, it isn’t always. There are many factors that go into story selection. One major challenge right now is the crowded media environment. Take a look at the front pages of major news websites and what do you see? Supreme Court rulings. Mass shootings. Russia’s mutiny. Ukraine’s counteroffensive. Trump’s indictments. Protests in France. The U.S. relationship with China. Interest rates. Inflation. These topics all compete for space and time in a news organization. Does the introduction of a new service from Meta really rank up there in importance with these other topics?
News media also pay attention to metrics about their readership. If viewers are reading stories about Threads, editors will assign more stories. If people aren’t interested in the topic, it will fade. There seems to be general interest in the Elon Musk’s mismanagement of Twitter and his rivalry with Mark Zuckerberg. If people are reading the stories about Threads, maybe Meta does get a little more coverage than something like this would normally merit.2
Honestly, I’ll know if there is mass media coverage when my wife asks me what I think about it.
The next level relates to how the stories are positioned. We know that tech media is framing the release of Instagram Threads as the latest change in a rapidly changing social media world. The stories right now seem to be largely framed as a contrast with existing Twitter alternatives, especially given the conversations within Mastodon admins about whether to preemptively block access to a service that may support ActivityPub.
But for a mass media audience, that’s all too nuanced. Given the high profile implosion of Twitter, and the bravado between Musk and Zuckerberg, I think pretty much every story is going to frame Instagram Threads as a Twitter-killer. I do imagine that they’ll at least mention Mastodon and Bluesky. Beyond that, who knows.
If the mass media covers the introduction of Threads – and the framing is positive – the coverage may be enough to prompt people to sign up for accounts. This priming effect is typically short-lived, but if Meta is able to get a lot of news coverage, there may be a surge in sign ups not too dissimilar to the surge in interest surrounding Mastodon and Bluesky. This won’t necessarily translate into engaged customers, but getting people to download the app and try the service is the first hurdle for Meta.
So as you look at the media coverage surrounding the launch of Instagram Threads, think about it in terms of agenda setting, framing and priming. (And actually, as you look at media bias in general, these three concepts are helpful in understanding how it works and why it happens.)
Bob Wertz is a creative director, type designer, Ph.D. student and researcher living in Columbia, South Carolina.