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Threads enters the fray
First impression: it's a paradise for brands and influencers. Hard pass.
Threads — Meta’s hotly-anticipated Twitter clone — launched yesterday. It’s built on top of Instagram, so it begins with a massive existing user base and billions of dollars in funding. We can count it as Twitter’s biggest rival on day 1.
I don’t expect it to succeed, though.
Between Elon’s “Twitter 2.0,” Mastodon, Bluesky, and Threads, we have four distinct theories of how you build on/replace Twitter’s niche in the media ecosystem. (yes, I realize there are a dozen other Twitter clones. These are just the four I’ve signed up for. YMMV.)
I’d summarize the four approaches as follows:
Mastodon has Linux vibes. The collapse of Twitter marks a turning point in our relationship to surveillance capitalism. Build a federated protocol, and convince people that distributed tools are better than slick corporate offerings.
Bluesky is betting on community/starting from power-users. Bluesky is also built as a protocol, but it has chosen a completely different development strategy. It’s invite-only, doubling in size every couple weeks by handing out invitation-codes to the user base. And they seeded the userbase with Twitter power-users — the people who made Twitter fun and lively to begin with.
Twitter 2.0 has scale and incumbency advantage. Since November, Twitter has basically been Elon Musk turning a big dial labeled “degraded services” on it and constantly looking back at the audience to see if they’ve left yet. It has been a train wreck, but it has also been a testament to how much leeway the platform has.
Threads has scale and unlimited money. The immediate threat posed by Threads is that it begins with Instagram’s user-base (which is ~5x the Twitter user-base, give or take) and Meta’s deep corporate pockets.
You can easily see, on paper, why Elon Musk is so mad about Threads launching that he challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a cage match.
But… I dunno. I’m just not seeing it.
Opening Threads, the first thing you’ll notice is the brands and the celebrities and the influencers. Instagram has great existing relationships with major brands and big celebrities. Brands and celebrities are exhausted by Twitter, but were never going to decamp to tiny, advertising-free outlets like Mastodon or Bluesky.
My feed was immediately filled with Stephen A. Smith engagement-bait videos. I have never followed Stephen A. Smith on any platform. Beyond the obligatory crab rangoon references, I have no interest in Stephen A. Smith content.
The social media managers for Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Netflix also arrived with a lot of pent-up energy. It feels like letting my dog off-leash at the dog park. (It’s nice that the brands are having fun again, I guess.)
And the influencers… Look, I’m 44 years old. My kids are too young for social media. I’m supposed to not know who all these influencers are. I’m on the periphery of mass culture at this stage of life. That’s the way these things are supposed to work.
But that’s all to say that my first impression of Threads was LOLAREYOUKIDDINGMEABSOLUTELYNOT.
What does Threads feels like?
Threads feels like when a local restaurant you enjoy opens a location in an airport.
It feels like a Twitter alternative you would order from Brookstone.
It feels like if an entire social network was those posts that tell you what successful entrepreneurs do before 6AM.
It feels like watching a Powerpoint from the Brand Research team where they tell you that Pop Tarts is crushing it on social.
It feels like Casual Friday on LinkedIn.
Threads could work, of course. The thing about being on the periphery of mass culture is that you are occasionally miffed at how popular things-that-don’t-appeal-to-you turn out to be.
But I’m seeing an early consensus forming that, since Threads begins with both scale and money, Threads is somehow going to inevitably succeed.
And on that point, I just want to ask: what is the last successful product you can recall Meta/Facebook building from scratch?
Part of what has defined Twitter’s niche for years is that it functions as a quasi-assignment editor for journalists. Twitter has never been where the mass public hung out; Twitter was for elites and for slightly-too-online communities.
That’s a problem for Threads, because the relationship between Meta and the journalism industry is, well, fraught. Today’s journalism industry is full of people who lived through the 2015 “pivot to video,” and recall the 2018 revelations that it was all a lie and Facebook knew it was a lie.
News organizations have to be on Facebook to share their stories. Boomers are on Facebook. Boomers are big readers. (And they can afford to subscribe to your news site, because they were born into an era of cheap college and cheap housing.) But Facebook is where you place the outputs of your journalism. Twitter was uniquely, weirdly well-suited to shaping journalism’s inputs.
Maybe Threads eventually finds a way to replicate that function. It’s a hard problem, but not an impossible one. But my point here is that, along with Meta’s scale and bank account, Threads is also starting with all of Meta’s baggage.
Remember last summer, when Instagram tried to morph into a TikTok-killer? That lasted a couple weeks, until the existing userbase (including the Kardashians) revolted. No one wanted Instagram to become TikTok. They wanted Instagram to be Instagram.
Does anyone really want Instagram to become Twitter? Or to have an offshoot Instagram Twitter-clone, filled with clever wordplay of their favorite brands and influencers?
Google+ started with scale and money too. It still landed with a thud. And people liked Google back then a lot more than they like Meta today.
Jay Rosen articulated what seems to be the most likely outcome: “Twitter was a moment. It won’t be replaced, though many will try.”
Threads might kill Twitter, but I think we mean "winner" when we say "Twitter killer." Threads could kill Twitter and then die off. That is quite plausible. The way I see it, Threads wins even if it’s a mediocre app because it can be a loss leader while getting marginal numbers that steal ad dollars from Twitter. Meta burned $10 billion in losses in a year on its metaverse white whale; it can prop up a Twitter competitor for a couple of years at a much smaller cost and kill Twitter by a thousand cuts.
(My money is still on Twitter declaring bankruptcy once the fines roll in, though. Elon Musk has enough money to run Twitter at a loss for decades. Twitter won’t die until he says it dead, and he won’t say it’s dead until he can salvage his ego.)
All that being said, I remain hopeful that Bluesky’s theory-of-change ultimately works out. Bluesky is betting that Twitter is made up of people. Replicate the core features, and give the old Twitter community time to reconstitute itself, and you have a real shot at building something that can sustain itself and grow into the niche Twitter has left behind.
It would be meaningful if that worked out. It would serve as an object lesson within Silicon Valley circles that successful platforms focus the needs of communities, not brands.
If Threads is ultimately successful, it will reinforce the belief that scale-trumps-everything. That’s a corrosive lesson, one that many of us are attempting to dislodge.
That would result in a less-weird, less-fun, less-useful internet.
I dunno. I guess we’ll just wait and see.