Discover more from The Unraveling
THREADS: What is it good for?
Absolutely something. But even if it fails, it wins. Here's a theory why Threads exists, and why it doesn't matter that the app doesn't seem ready for prime time.
I wouldn’t call Threads a “new” social network. It is bootstrapped onto Instagram’s user base from the start. Even though your Insta and Threads accounts can be separate, Threads initially maps its social network along Instagram’s social network, with some opportunity for new connections down the line. In that sense, I consider it a layer of Instagram’s network, a public group chat add-on more than something that is standalone.
I joined Threads last night and have been messing around with it. It feels like it was rushed to market, probably to take advantage of Twitter’s foibles and get a first-mover advantage over the beta-for-now Bluesky. By “rushed,” I mean the design feels unintuitive and it’s missing some really critical features such as a feed comprised of only people you follow. When you log in, you get a mix of people you follow (based on your Instagram connections) and then some random mix of semi-famous people and high-traffic posts.
For what it’s worth, I don’t see anything on Threads that functions better than Bluesky. Its advantage - and it’s a big one - is that it comes with an instant user base and can scale up quickly so the site feels more vibrant than one growing methodically. Threads does feel more populated than other alternatives such as Mastodon or Bluesky, which is what you want when people sign up. Those first-glance impressions are what keep new apps from having people sign up and then abandon the service within hours or days.
Leveraging Facebook’s scale at launch is probably the safest play for Threads, but it’s also a gamble for hockey-stick levels of growth because it risks flaming out if the launch isn’t done right or if the app isn’t ready. Compare that to the alternative. I’ve seen a couple of people say Threads’ instant millions of users will force Bluesky to accelerate its invitation code process, but I hope not. We have seen the destructive power of social platforms chasing large user bases at all costs for advertising dollars, and a true alternative should forge a different path. Slow, adaptable growth helps us not repeat our worst mistakes.
I see news outlets referring to Threads as a “Twitter killer.” I’d resist this label for any new service but for Threads specifically. Disaffected Twitter users aren’t going to make or break its success. We are checking out options in multiple places and waiting to see whether the critical mass happens in one space, like an 8th-grade dance where everyone is standing around off to the side. Threads will take off if it captures a new slice of people, which means those who were on Insta but didn’t use Twitter. Otherwise, you end up with a big user base full of people eyeing the exits, which creates the sense of a dead zone. Yes, a lot of brands and news outlets are there; this is probably the result of the prep work Meta did in advance. But those corporate accounts will only stay if there is a community there; it’s a return-on-investment reality.
Any Twitter alternative is going to face a different side of this struggle. You can’t just be a place for Twitter refugees. That isn’t a vision that leads to something vibrant. Social apps need community and a reason to coalesce, so some of these Twitter alts that are selling themselves with “we’re not Elon’s site” are going to fail.
Allow me to submit an alternate theory of the case for why Threads exists.
First, check out this Axios piece about Meta’s history of product launches and failures. This chart grabbed me:
You probably don’t remember most of those products. But many of them came at a time when Meta was facing pressure from some new upstart. Meta has had two methods for dealing with competition: buy them (Instagram, WhatsApp) or copy them and leverage Meta’s big user base to destroy the competition. Launching a clone with millions of instant users can suffocate a smaller app that is unable to grow that quickly.
So my own sense is Threads doesn't need to win here to succeed. It just needs to hasten Twitter's demise by cutting into Twitter's daily active user (DAU) count.
Affecting Twitter’s DAU even at the margins would gut Twitter’s ad revenue because ad rates are based on having large, active user bases. Threads might exist for exactly this purpose, and perhaps only this purpose: a distraction to make you stop using Twitter, even if only for a few weeks or months.
Notice, by the way, that user experience doesn’t matter in this equation. A working, usable app with a clean and intuitive interface is what you put out if you’re trying to grow a product into something transformational. But you launch, well, whatever launched yesterday if even a marginal cut into Twitter’s DAU is an existential threat to Elon’s cash-starved platform.
So, 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.
And that matters for Meta. A social media landscape without Twitter creates a vacuum that benefits existing players over startups and upstarts. To go elsewhere, users first congregate at the place where they can find people. And it takes time for upstart competitors to gain traction. This is a very long game for Meta.
So in that sense, while my publishing timing yesterday was impeccable as usual, the analysis remains unchanged. There are lots of choices out there. They are slowly grabbing attention from Twitter, and Twitter is on a glide path to losing Elon $44 billion due to his hubris and inability to understand the platform he bought.
Every new competitor is a further drain on Twitter. What’s next is the Twitter implosion, and after that, we move to deciding where we’ll all settle next. That future is still very up for grabs, but Threads has a lot of work to do if it wants to be relevant in the aftermath.