Threads, the new microblogging platform from Meta via Instagram, surpassed 100 million sign-ups in five days. It took Twitter five years to put up similar numbers. This initial success at such a massive scale puts Threads ahead of so many other recently launched “Twitter killers,” chiefly Mastodon, Bluesky, and Substack Notes, which each enjoyed auspicious launches but then flagged in popularity shortly thereafter. The launch of Threads was rather unexpected, as is Mark Zuckerberg’s return to the front lines of the next-gen social media wars.
And yet, even with 100 million sign-ups and counting, Threads seems liable to unravel just as rapidly as it took off. Mastodon was the Twitter killer until it wasn’t. And then Bluesky was the Twitter killer until it also wasn’t. How many Twitter killers does it take to actually do the thing?
In fairness, these companies aren’t simply building a new social media platform, but specifically a social media platform meant to emulate and succeed an existing one, meaning the new products need to overcome a somewhat weakened but still reasonably healthy incumbent. Sometimes, this works, like when Instagram launched Stories and quickly neutralized Snapchat. Sometimes, it’s harder to say, because the terms of success aren’t so straightforward. It’s impossible for Instagram’s 2 billion users to avoid seeing Reels, but it’s still best understood as the hilariously insufficient and algorithmically inept token rival to TikTok. Twitter may well be gross and dysfunctional, but it’s gross and dysfunctional in very particular ways, with a user base accustomed (addicted?) to certain conversational dynamics and, for lack of a better word, vibes. Twitter’s rivals need to offer something fundamentally like Twitter but also notably different from Twitter in a way that compels users to leave a relatively certain platform for an uncertain one. This caution is assuming those rivals do in fact want to recreate Twitter. But do they? Should they?
What do users really even want in a Twitter successor, assuming they want one at all? Do they really want the sort of “decentralization” offered on Mastodon, with its “federated” network of interconnected servers? Do users simply want a less “toxic” place to post? Does that mean stronger moderation? Weaker moderation? What do I even mean by “users,” exactly? Roughly, I’d split my timeline on Threads into two camps: camp A, disillusioned Twitter obsessives open to defecting to a slightly different website run by a somewhat less obnoxious guy according to more progressive posting norms, and camp B, users from all over who never took to Twitter but are probably on other apps, especially Instagram, and are now inclined, for whatever reason, to give microblogging a shot on Threads. These camps are at odds. I spent the past weekend watching users from camp A insist that users from camp B are too ditzy and cheesy for proper knock-down, drag-out, Twitter-style microblogging, while users from camp B call users from camp A too self-righteous and self-centered to permit this new website to prioritize users who aren’t already overserved by Twitter. This culture clash is about more than just tone. On Friday, Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said “the goal” is to make Threads “a less angry place for conversations” compared to Twitter, and not necessarily a forum for “politics and hard news.” Mosseri added, “We’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.” This was of course interpreted as a statement that Mosseri wants to drive journalists and politicians into the sea and force political naivete onto users.
I sympathize with some of this defensiveness from camp A about the role of news and politics in social media. Twitter really was a transformative resource. How many defunct social media platforms can you really say this about? What was lost, really, when Facebook vanquished Myspace? Or when Twitter nixed Vine? Or when Google shelved Reader? There’s certainly some nostalgia for those platforms, but Myspace and Vine weren’t especially useful, and Reader wasn’t nearly as disruptive as Facebook or Twitter.
This is what has been so vexing about Elon Musk’s mismanagement of Twitter—he’s forsaken its real value in favor of developing a pay-to-play racket for radicalized hustlers who are selling a signature mix of anti-wokeness and Web 3.0. If nothing else, Zuckerberg seems a lot less likely than Musk to make his own microblogging platform a crude statue of himself. He’s no hero, but Zuck has come a long way. He optimistically hosted the earliest presidential foray into social media with Barack Obama in the 2000s, but then he spent the 2010s decimating the news business and begging for forgiveness before Congress over his website’s reckless influence on global affairs. He also watched Twitter become its own sort of idiocracy terrordome with weak user growth and still weaker revenue growth for its dystopian trouble. So Mosseri is probably right to regard “politics and hard news” as lost causes. He is right, frankly, to assume Threads won’t beat or even match Twitter by inheriting all of its problems, limitations, and power users. Like Twitter. But different. But not too different. But definitely different.
Still, it’s not unreasonable for the power users of Twitter to approach this moment with some trepidation. For a long time, Twitter was the only game in town as far as microblogging was concerned. Everyone is so accustomed to this dynamic that they instinctively view Twitter vs. Threads, or Twitter vs. Bluesky, or Twitter vs. Mastodon, as a last-man-standing contest. In a discussion on Threads on Friday, Atlantic writer (and Ringer podcaster) Derek Thompson wrote, “I hope Threads fails, or destroys Twitter entirely,” arguing against “some awkward interregnum where Twitter and Threads are both just okay enough that I feel obligated to double my screen time.” I think the truth here is double-sided. Indeed, Twitter’s position as the one microblogging platform for everyone was always the great thing about Twitter but also, in large part, the problem with Twitter. So many users are desperate to see these Twitter clones succeed—and hell, this applies to Truth Social and Parler, too—because they are trying to get away from groups and dynamics that they regularly encounter on Twitter. It would be a strange waste of resources and insight if Threads’ killing of Twitter simply led its displaced users to turn up on Threads to start the hotboxing anew.
There’s got to be some middle ground between the view that microblogging is (a) fractured and too niche to be appealing to anyone looking for a sense of online community larger and more vital than, say, a subreddit and the view that microblogging is (b) one website full of people who apparently can’t stand each other and clearly don’t play well together. Now, there’s a microblogging platform full of relentlessly snarky weirdos posting recursive screenshots of days-long arguments and mile-high pile-ons, and then there’s another one full of relentlessly upbeat weirdos posting neo-Upworthy prompts in the vein of Jim Halpert’s classic: “What kind of bear is best?” And you have to choose. These websites won’t “kill” Twitter, I don’t think, so much as they’ll reduce its user base to a narrower range of personalities and interests. You’ll know Threads has succeeded when millions of people are still, uh, thread-ing regardless of the app’s potential to kill Twitter and humiliate Musk and appease everyone else on Earth. Then, we’ll be living in a very different microblogging landscape. Sign me up.
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