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There is an iron law of social networks: No new network can succeed by simply copying what came before. It takes something different to captivate attention and spark new forms of behaviour, whether that is Snapchat’s disappearing messages, Pinterest’s image boards or TikTok’s scrolling videos.
Judged by that standard, Threads, the new Twitter challenger Meta launched this week, should be dead on arrival. A standalone app billed as an extension of Instagram, Threads is a bare-bones take on a microblogging service that has little to distinguish itself.
For all that, Meta’s attack on Twitter has just become the most interesting fight in social media since Google+ tried to unseat Facebook. To avoid the abject failure Google suffered, Meta, led by Mark Zuckerberg, is counting on three things — though it is unlikely these alone will be enough.
First, the new service starts out with the power of the Instagram network behind it. Letting people log in with an Instagram account and bring their existing connections with them could help to jump-start the new network, But just because it is easier to get going on Threads will not give people a reason to come back.
The tie to Instagram also suggests another possibility. Threads could be a place for a different kind of conversation. If Twitter is where journalists, politicians and policy wonks congregate to fight over the news of the day, maybe Instagram’s more creative vibe can turn Threads into what Meta calls “a positive and creative venue for your ideas”. But it is the users who decide what a network is used for, not its owner.
A second hope is that Elon Musk’s controversial ownership of Twitter has created an audience hungry for an alternative. His campaign to relax restrictions on speech and his move to strip back the platform’s content moderation efforts has led many users of the network to complain it has become a more hostile environment. Musk’s own often erratic antics on Twitter soured the view of many users.
Stricter content controls could be a real point of differentiation for Threads, albeit somewhat ironic given Meta’s own history of moderation failures. Yet despite the complaints, Twitter still seems to exert a gravitational pull on its users. This may be because there was no viable alternative, though it may equally be a result of inertia.
The third — and most intriguing — pitch Meta has made is that users will eventually be able to communicate with people on other networks, reading posts or allowing their own to flow beyond Threads itself. This could also enable people to take their personal networks with them if they want to leave Threads altogether.
This is sure to generate suspicion in the fediverse — the name adopted by a group of existing internet services that have taken on the communication protocol that makes this type of interoperability possible. Meta has been the internet’s most successful “walled garden”, with full control over everything its users do: Is it really making such a sharp philosophical turn? And is it ready for the business model dilution this implies, because giving up control of its audience’s attention would weaken its appeal to advertisers?
Meta’s new stance on interoperability may reflect a belief that its old ways of doing business will no longer work. Trying out interoperability in a new app, away from its existing core networks, might be a good way to experiment. Or it may be a bet that Meta hopes it can dominate the new constellation of interoperable services.
Promoting interoperability might also be a way to break Twitter’s stranglehold on microblogging. One day, if other sites adopt the idea and users come to expect it, Twitter could be forced to open up its network, losing some of its control over its own users’ attention. But that is a long-term hope: Threads needs reasons for large numbers of users to flock to its service in the here and now.
All of this makes Meta’s attack on Twitter this year’s most fascinating tech rivalry. But it does not change the most significant fact about Threads: it is starting life not much more than a rudimentary clone. Twitter’s biggest failure in its 17-year history stems from not doing enough to adapt and evolve its service to capture a bigger audience. Musk has promised to change that.
The real question for Meta will be whether it can adapt its new service quickly enough to out-run Musk, finding new ways to engage an audience with ideas that are not a straight copy. One thing is for sure: it will not be enough to just sit by and wait for Twitter to implode.