New Threads!

Distracted man looking from Twitter to Threads

If you’re at all acquainted with social media, you’ll be aware that Instagram launched its Twitter clone Threads today (July 6th). As a social media manager, I can tell you this is the biggest event in the industry since, well, possibly ever.

We’ve seen people get excited over new social networks before: Mastodon, BeReal, countless others I’ve long since forgotten. But while there are no guarantees, there’s reason to believe that Threads could be more than a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Could it be the app that graduates from Twitter rival to potential Twitter-killer?

What is Threads?

Threads is a text-based microblogging app that allows users to publish short posts of up to 500 characters, and to comment on, like or repost other users’ posts. If that sounds a lot like Twitter, that’s because it is a lot like Twitter. In fact, its look and feel is about as close as you can get to Twitter’s without lawyers getting involved.

That’s a good thing. It means the user interface is instantly familiar and intuitive to Twitter users. It’s not fancy and the initial functionality is quite basic, but it does the simple things well. That isn’t always the case with other Twitter competitors.

Threads stands out in two other important ways.

Firstly, it’s incredibly simple to set up. That’s an easy thing to say, but harder to achieve. It removes a key barrier to entry for many users.

Secondly, it enables users to carry across their existing Instagram audiences to Threads at the touch of a button. This is critical for two reasons. It overcomes the need to start from scratch. If you have 1,000 Instagram followers, several hundred will come to Threads as they sign up, giving users a fast start. And this also means that users’ feeds get busy quickly. On other start-up apps, it’s easy to feel like you’re shouting alone in an empty room. That is categorically not the case here. It creates the ‘network effect’, where the value of a service increases as more people use it. It’s a huge advantage that Instagram – with its 2.35 billion existing users – enjoys that other apps can only dream of.

Add all this up, and you have an app that might just live up to the hype.

What’s it like to use?

I’ve been testing Threads extensively today. (Hey, I’m a social media manager – it’s “research”.) The basic functionality works smoothly. My feed is full of conversations I actively want to participate in rather than animosity-filled content I hastily scroll by. The vibe is similar to the first day back at school after the long summer holiday – but before the teachers have arrived. Everyone is enthusiastic, excited and positive. There are no trolls, bots or, ahem, politicians to bring down the tone.

Of course, it won’t last forever. And there is a danger that some users will look to create Twitter 2.0, which is the last thing anyone truly needs. But we’ll have to wait and see. For now it’s a fun place to be.

In fact, it reminds me a lot of how Twitter was when I joined back in 2008. Those were altogether more innocent times. Users would engage in chats with complete strangers. Disagreements happened, but were largely civil. You could walk away from your feed for a few hours and still be able to scroll through it all when you came back. Everyone followed Stephen Fry and revelled in his random philosophising on all manner of subjects. And it was the place where breaking news, well, broke. Arab Spring. The Hudson river plane crash. Game of Thrones spoilers. It truly was the Golden Age of social media. (Okay, it probably wasn’t, but it was certainly a less toxic place than Twitter now is.)

Threads – on day one, at least – feels more like Twitter 2008 than Twitter 2023. Sure, it’s basically mobile only. Hashtags don’t work yet. You can’t access GIFs natively. There’s no chronological timeline. Or following feed. You can’t save work-in-progress posts as drafts. And you can’t add alt text yet, which is not great from an accessibility perspective. But what’s there works smoothly. And, for a network that went from zero to ten million users in under seven hours – which is unprecedented – the fact that there have been no noticeable technical glitches or the equivalent of Twitter’s old ‘fail whale’ is nothing short of remarkable.

There’s a long way to go if Threads is to carve out an enduring place in the socialverse. But it’s hard to see how it could have got off to a better start.

Not Elon Musk’s best day

Should Elon Musk be worried? No. He should be terrified. Here are some stats to explain why.

Twitter claims to have 450 million active users. (The definition of ‘active’ is quite loose here – it generally requires a user to log in to the app once within the last month.) Instagram has 2.35 billion users. That means Instagram’s user base is more than five times as large. Or, put another way, if just 20% of Instagram’s users decide to give Threads a go, that will make the new kid on the block larger than its 17-year-old rival.

Of course, there’s a big difference between a user trialling a new app and sticking around for the long haul. My phone and its cache of dust-encrusted, once-used social networking apps is testament to that. But I have a feeling that Threads isn’t going to be joining them any time soon.

Having lots of users is nice, but money talks. Twitter’s annual ad revenue is around $3 billion. Which sounds like a lot – and it is – but it’s worth noting that it (a) it’s been in steep decline since Musk’s takeover (and the current focus on driving subscription revenue is having negligible effect) and (b) Meta’s ad revenue is $130 billion, and growing steadily.

So the bigger Threads gets, the more likely it is that advertisers will vote with their feet and switch their spend away from Twitter. It’s already easy to create cross-platform ad campaigns that publish to Facebook, Instagram and Messenger from one place. It would be simple to add Threads to that mix.

Twitter’s business model is precarious enough already. Any further revenue losses will most likely render it unsustainable. Even the richest man in the world only has pockets so deep.

There were rumours recently about staging a cage fight between Musk and Meta founder Mark Zuckerberg. They proved to be untrue. But that cage fight is happening, only in social media form. Zuckerberg has landed a formidable first punch and given Musk a bloody nose. Will he be able to follow that up with a knockout blow? Only time will tell. It’s going to be a humdinger of a fight. Bring popcorn.