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Threads: A Twitter Killer, Yet Another Alternative, or a Stillborn Child?

about threads

A couple of weeks ago, every news outlet I saw was buzzing about the potential “Twitter killer” and asking if “Threads is a Threat to Twitter,” but not everything that starts with a bang ends up a successful social media. Take Clubhouse, which was all the rage at the start of the pandemic. “What’s Clubhouse?” I can hear you saying. Exactly.

The last few months saw several Twitter alternatives, including Mastodon, Bluesky, Spill, and T2, enjoying the attention of users willing to try another text-based social network. Yet, no revolution happened. Still, there might be some truth in all these sensational forecasts. Anyway, as a paper writer, I always pro everything text-centered, so I decided to give it a try and registered a week ago. Now I’m ready to share with you my thoughts on this new addition to the Meta universe and why it might indeed replace Twitter.

What’s Threads?

Threads is a new app from Meta, built by the Instagram team. It was launched at the beginning of July, just three months after Mark Zuckerberg confirmed the plans for its development and hit 100 million sign-ups within the first week.

The app looks a lot like Twitter. It shows a feed of short, primarily text-based posts, although one can post photos, videos, and gifs as well. Users can show their support of a post by hitting a heart-shaped icon under it and engage in other familiar ways: replying to posts and creating threads of conversations, reposting, and quoting someone’s initial message.

To sign up, you have to use your Instagram account, which has some good and some bad sides. On the one hand, you don’t have to start everything from scratch. You can keep following everyone you already follow on Instagram and keep your audience as an influencer, along with all the settings, like blocklists. On the other hand, your accounts on both apps are linked, and you cannot delete your Threads account should you want to without deleting your Instagram account too. The developers say they are looking into creating such a possibility in the future.

What’s different?

Of course, despite the very similar mechanics and even threats of trade secrets misappropriation lawsuit from Elon Musk, Threads isn’t a clone of Twitter. It has the familiar Instagram aesthetic and navigation, allowing users to share posts from Threads directly to Instagram Stories. It has no paid tiers and offers a larger character limit – 500 against Twitter’s 260. Yet most importantly (or frustratingly, maybe?), the Threads feed is algorithmic, which means you don’t only see posts from accounts you follow in chronological order. You see what the AI behind it all deems the most relevant based on your subscriptions, history, and who knows what else. I remember being pleasantly surprised by the ease of sign-up and familiar navigation, only to become puzzled by my feed, like, “Who are all these people?”

Maybe developers will later add separate “Following” and “Recommended” feeds in different tabs, maybe not. What is clear is that Threads is still very much a work in progress. Mark Zuckerberg admitted as much, saying that the Threads team deliberately chose to let the people in and improve the app for them based on feedback and demands rather than wait until everything was ready down to the last lick of paint. This approach does make sense, given the large Instagram user base. The app boasts over 2.35 billion monthly active users against 450 million of Twitter’s audience. Casting nets wide in hopes that some will stick around through the initial period of trial and error might pay out.

What’s lacking?

The following timeline isn’t the only thing missing. So far, there is no full-functioning support for the web (you can only read but not engage with posts or publish your own content from a browser), no direct messages, editing of published posts, hashtags, or trending topics. Other Twitter-like features that are so far absent include long videos (Threads has a 5-minute limit), direct messages, and live audio rooms.

I wonder which of these omissions are to be rectified and which are intentional. The lack of editing and DMs can be a feature, not a bug, fostering more accountability and transparency in discussions. For instance, you can’t troll your opponent by harassing them privately while putting on the mask of injured virtue publicly. Neither can you quietly wipe away unfortunate phrasing that caused a backlash – you can only admit your mistake and own it.

However, the lack of hashtags that were the driving force behind the MeToo, BLM, and other transformative movements, as well as the lack of trending topics, is questionable in the light of Thread’s ambition to become a place for real-time public conversations. Still, only time can tell how Threads will look in the future and how (and if) we will engage with it.

What’s the plan?

Of course, not being a clone doesn’t mean not being after someone’s audience. Zuckerberg doesn’t make a secret of Threads being conceived as a direct rival to Twitter. The lofty goal is to become “a public conversation app with 1 billion+ people on it,” according to Zuck’s own Threads post. “Twitter has had the opportunity to do this but hasn’t nailed it. Hopefully, we will.”

However, it seems that Meta aims at something much more grandiose than simply standing in place of another popular app. It’s “shaping the future of the internet,” no less. The officially announced plans are to make Threads compatible with third-party apps to create a decentralized ecosystem of interoperable social networks. This is going to be achieved through the use of ActivityPub protocol, already supported by apps like Mastodon and WordPress, with many others, including Tumblr, willing to join. What does it mean for users?

Here is how Adam Mosseri, head of product on the Instagram team, explained it: “You may one day end up leaving Threads, or, hopefully not, end up de-platformed. If that ever happens, you should be able to take your audience with you to another server.”

Given Twitter’s checkered history with people being de-platformed not only for their odious violations of hate-speech policies but also for some innocuous posts intentionally misconstrued by more belligerent users, this looks like a good idea. Threads definitely does its homework and wants to be a new Twitter, but better.

The Twitter killer?

Even though the explosive start was followed by a sharp 70% decline in daily active users, there is no denying that Threads still has potential. Mark Zuckerberg is known to be very competitive and persistent, and Meta has a history of successful acquisitions. It bought Instagram in 2012, timely spotting its big promise, and acquired WhatsApp in 2014, not to mention Beluga, which Meta later turned into its highly successful Messenger platform.

Not only that, but Meta never shied away from borrowing features that users find desirable from their competitors. Instagram Stories were copied from Snapchat’s main thing. Reels were introduced to bring the TikTok experience of binging on short-format videos. It was only a matter of time before the public conversation format of Twitter was featured by Meta in any shape or form. Come to think of it, I’m rather surprised it didn’t happen earlier, and Zuckerberg waited until Twitter’s popularity began waning in the wake of Musk’s unpopular updates. After all, Twitter has seen a substantial decline in users over the past two years.

Nevertheless, the changes introduced by Elon Musk, who acquired the app last year, didn’t help. Novelties like fees for a “blue check” verification badge, paid tiers, and caps on the tweets a person can read daily depending on the tier weren’t popular with users and alienated many, including high-profile figures like Stephen King.

Yet by far, the biggest issue plaguing Twitter under Musk’s tenure is a dramatic increase in violent content and disinformation, which drives advertisers away – ads revenue has dropped 50%. This is the direct result of Musk’s course towards “the freedom of speech” that he touted even before the app’s acquisition. As he took control over the app in October 2022, Musk famously tweeted, “The bird is freed,” alluding to the loosening of content rules and reinstatement of accounts blocked previously for platform policy violations. Since then, hate speech towards minority communities increased (slurs against Black Americans more than tripled, homophobic slurs doubled), extremist content spiked (QAnon-related hashtags rose 91%), reports of harassment went up, and Covid-19 disinformation rose. Advertisers, seeing their ads next to violent and inaccurate posts, recoiled.

Despite Musk’s assurances that under his leadership, Twitter won’t turn into a “free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences,” it looks like the app is heading precisely that way. We are yet to see whether it’s good for democracy, but it’s definitely bad for business.

As if to highlight that this is another world now, Musk has removed Twitter’s iconic bird logo and adopted the “X” he is obsessed with instead, tweeting that redirects to now. Musk added that in the future, the company plans to “bid adieu to the Twitter brand and, gradually, all the birds.”

The company’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, announced that X will adopt features “centered in audio, video, messaging, payment/banking,” turning it into a “global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities” – all powered by AI.

So far, it seems that Musk is the one killing Twitter bit by bit – or at least reshaping it into something most users do not even recognize. In contrast, it looks like Zuckerberg might be giving Twitter a chance to reincarnate as a text-based public forum we all know and love.

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