“Picture Twitter but with a lot less Elon Musk” is how the Wall Street Journal is describing Threads, Meta’s new app. That right there is good news, maybe unusual where tech is concerned. I’ll give you a list of reasons in a moment, but first it’s only fair to state (or rather link to) my bias, which is not only about how Twitter’s Trust & Safety Council was treated after Musk took over but all its users, as well as the loss the takeover represented.
One paragraph on that before I get to the list…. As many of you well know, social media is not an undifferentiated single thing. Each platform is unique, offering its users a set of features that they work into their lives in ways that are unique individually and collectively. The best description I ever heard of Twitter, back in the days when everybody was referring to social media as “social networking,” is that Twitter was “social broadcasting.” It was a platform for individuals to broadcast to their friends, colleagues and followers their work, their interests, their views in a uniquely social way. You could say people do that on YouTube, TikTok and Twitch, but not in quite the same way. Arguably, it was a touch more interactive, less of a soapbox for many of us. It could be as much a professional (or personal) learning network as a platform for influencing. It played a unique role in many societies. Obviously to Americans, it was – for good or ill, depending on one’s politics – a major tool (or weapon) of our former president, which was an almost immeasurable content moderation challenge. Even if you saw that particular use of Twitter as a negative, its loss has left a huge unfilled hole for vast numbers of good people in many communities, from black Twitter to the research community to human rights and other NGOs. At least it did for me – a hole that I can’t see Mastodon, Bluesky or Post filling anytime soon, and I’m a fan of the first two (I haven’t fully checked out Post).
Which leads us to Threads. It has a much better chance of filling that social broadcasting hole, one reason being because it’s part of Instagram and so, potentially, can quickly gain critical mass (see below) and the other reason being that Meta intends to make it interoperable with Mastodon, Bluesky and other parts of the “fediverse” (a term for a growing ecosystem of decentralized networks like Mastodon). It’s a departure for longstanding social media platforms but not a total one, because Threads, including safety on it, is centralized by definition.
So besides interoperability, here’s the good news list:
- Critical mass: One of the things that made Twitter so useful to so many was the “so many” part – the sheer size and diversity of its user base (post-Musk Twitter has declined significantly both ways). Threads already has 30 million users, according to a BBC report, and this is just its first day. That’s likely because it’s part of Instagram, which has more than 2.35 billion users, according to market researcher DemandSage. And it’s already available in more than 100 countries (not yet EU countries for regulatory reasons). You just download the app for your Android or Apple phone and sign in using your Instagram account.
- Functions like Twitter. It stands to reason that, if you want to match Twitter’s former social-broadcasting efficacy, don’t change much – and Meta hasn’t. Just like Twitter, it’s text-focused but allows users to add links, photos and videos to their short tweet-like posts of up to 500 characters.
- More a (social) utility like Twitter too. It’s pretty bare-bones and focused, which will appeal to a lot of people, especially former Twitter users and maybe even some Insta users tired of all the bells and whistles. And, like a utility, its usefulness is what you make of it, more of a blank slate than, say, Instagram.
- Legacy safety and privacy. This is possibly the best one. Unlike other Twitter wannabes, Threads benefits from the well-established content moderation infrastructure behind all of Meta’s apps. Regardless of what anybody thinks of its track record, Meta has invested a lot in content policy and moderation – they say $16 billion since 2016 – in any case, billions more than any startup ever could. Threads has Instagram’s community guidelines and many of the same safety features, which users can carry over (or just keep) from their Insta accounts – e.g., their Hidden Words list; anyone they’ve blocked; muting, reporting and unfollowing; and the ability to prevent mentions or replies. As with Twitter, your account can be private or public. One could legitimately call this safety-by-design, a new app built on top of an existing digital safety system.
As Bloomberg put it, “Twitter users have griped for months about Twitter changing into something they didn’t want. But people stayed because their community mostly stayed. Now competition is heating up — and that can only be a good thing.” Right. Competition with Musk’s Twitter for sure. But it’s not a good thing for Mastodon, Bluesky, Post, Artifact or Spill. I’ve been rooting for at least a couple of them. But I’ve had some cognitive dissonance about doing so too, because since last October, I’ve wanted to see just one safe-as-possible Twitter alternative reach serious critical mass yesterday, and I suspect nobody else can do that now that Threads is here. Even better for everybody if it turns out to be truly interoperable and collaborative with other social networks. Especially in the age of generative AI.
- In his first impressions piece, “Elon should be worried,” entrepreneur, tech writer and investor Ben Parr writes that Threads “might be the next big social network” – though a text-based social network “may not be possible anymore,” in the days of short video, but I’m thinking maybe it is as a complement to Instagram’s Reels. We’ll have to wait and see.
- However tech reporter Kate Clark at The Information says, not surprisingly, that Bluesky, not Threads, has the spirit of the original Twitter and just got another round of venture funding that will enable it to add a whole lot of new users much faster. Again, we’ll see.
- The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern’s “Threads vs. Twitter: What’s the Difference?“
- “Threads Had Big Launch Energy. Twitter Is Under Pressure.” – a commentary from Bloomberg tech columnist Dave Lee
- Silicon Republic surveys the competitive landscape: “Attack of the clones: Let’s look at Twitter alternatives,” conveniently all in one place
- The BBC’s coverage on launch day
- And Instagram’s own blog post about its brainchild