Imagine a social network where users have invested so much social capital in putting up data about themselves that it is impossible to imagine them leaving. Moving to a new site would be an enormous risk for users because you would lose your network of friends. The network’s entire existence, the theory goes, is secured by these barriers to starting afresh at a new outlet.
This was how the Guardian described Myspace in 2007, when the early social network had 150 million global users, a number so large it was considered improbable that they would ever move elsewhere. (In the end Myspace was soon overtaken by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Rupert Murdoch lost almost all the money he spent buying the site, and Myspace’s once-ubiquitous founder Tom Anderson has travelled the world on the profits ever since.)
Sixteen years later, Elon Musk’s Twitter is also testing the theory that people remain loyally addicted to their favoured social network until suddenly, one day, they give up and move elsewhere. This weeek Zuckerberg launched Threads, a new platform aimed at winning over people who, in the words of one executive, want somewhere a bit like Twitter that is “sanely run”.
After a day using Threads, one thing is pretty clear: it is not Twitter. But Threads has the potential to be something different and powerful: Twitter with fewer rough edges, more corporate sheen, and enough potential to suck the remaining life – and advertising revenue – out of Musk’s struggling network.
The biggest difference is that Threads feels substantially less confrontational, less aggressive, and less based around shouting at strangers with different political views than Twitter. The racism, antisemitism, transphobia and general abuse that is prevalent on Twitter is just nowhere near as visible. Zuckerberg told a user on the site that this was a design feature: “The goal is to keep it friendly as it expands … That’s one reason why Twitter never succeeded as much as I think it should have, and we want to do it differently.”
Threads has also solved the problem of starting a social network from scratch by borrowing an existing one from Instagram. Any existing Instagram user can sign up and swiftly reconnect their followers on the photo-sharing app, meaning Threads is not plagued by the sense that you’ve just turned up at a new school without friends. (In a strange benefit of Brexit for British users, EU countries are currently banned from signing up to Threads due to this feature potentially breaching Brussels’ data rules.)
The flipside is that, at the moment, no one is entirely sure why they are using Threads. Broadly speaking, three groups are dominating the site: users known for posting photos on Instagram that have unexpectedly gained an enormous audience on a text-centric app; social media managers at companies desperate to retain relevance by jumping on the hot new thing; and people fleeing Twitter’s increasingly toxic environment. All of them have a different idea of what they want from the site. A large chunk of the first day’s posts consisted of people asking why they had signed up.
Threads also lacks the immediacy of Twitter, with the app’s main news feed currently only featuring an algorithmically generated summary of recent posts. Until this feature is changed to allow users to prioritise material published in the last few minutes, it limits the site’s use as a home for breaking news. When Keir Starmer was heckled at an event in Gillingham on Thursday morning, the clip was immediately all over Twitter. But it was far less visible on Threads, which also currently lacks a text search function.
Instead, Threads is more like a cross between Twitter and Instagram, with a TikTok-style focus on juicing engagement from posts. You are more likely to see a funny post from the Archbishop of Banterbury meme account than an earnest discussion about a political intervention by his Church of England equivalent.
All of this is bad news for Twitter under Musk, which could retreat even further into being a home for rightwing libertarians arguing over culture war topics. At its best, the experience of being on Twitter in the mid-2010s felt like being able to drop in on the funniest, most interesting party in town. It proved to be one of the best media regulators that has ever existed, a perfect place to rapidly call out shoddy journalism and political lies. It was not necessarily the place where the vast majority of the world found out about things – that was Facebook – but Twitter was probably where the information was posted first.
It was also perfect for building online communities around shared interests, whether that involved political news, favourite musicians, or LGBTQ+ rights. But crowding a lot of different communities with strongly held interests into the same online house party has its flaws. Anger and fury turned out to be the best way to go viral and reach an audience. Donald Trump used the site as a megaphone to swamp the media zone in his run to the White House.
Ultimately, Threads’s launch might be just be another step in the disintegration of the social media scene of the 2010s and its rebirth as a more sanitised advertiser-friendly environment, rather than a messy free-for-all discussion.
Zuckerberg said he hoped Threads would overtake Twitter’s 250 million monthly users. “It will take some time, but I think there should be a public conversation app with 1 billion+ people on it,” he said. “Twitter has had the opportunity to do this but hasn’t nailed it. Hopefully, we will.”