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Mark Zuckerberg’s Threads Is an Early Success — Thanks to Elon Musk

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

The launch of Threads, Meta’s Twitter-ish “conversation platform,” couldn’t have gone much better. It hit 100 million users in a week, placing it in contention for the fastest-growing app of all time. It didn’t crash. And it triggered an instant lawsuit from Twitter and a string of sloppy tweets from Elon Musk, who spent the postlaunch week pushing back against reports that Twitter’s traffic is in decline, calling Mark Zuckerberg a “cuck,” and proposing a “literal dick measuring contest.” Future former Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino struggled to articulate an official response to Threads in broken LinkedIn-ese:

Meta’s timing was both savvy and lucky. It rushed out a functional but incomplete product in time to capitalize on Twitter users’ uncertainty about the future of the platform. Two days before the launch, Musk announced harsh viewing limits for nonpaying Twitter users; around the same time, the entire service briefly stopped working for many. And while it would be a stretch to say that Musk’s and Zuckerberg’s weeks of posturing about a “cage match” were good for anyone involved, Zuckerberg was given a rare and valuable chance to, in purely relative terms, play it cool. Threads was, all around, a public-relations success: an instantly established new brand; a reputational transfer from one competitor to another; and a sense of buzz, growth, and newness for an incumbent social-media giant.

Photo: @mosseri/Threads

Credit where credit’s due: Meta couldn’t have pulled this off without Elon. Subtract Twitter’s owner and its amphetaminic product strategy and you’re left with a story that’s both less sympathetic and less novel — Meta copying a much smaller competitor after failing to vanquish or buy it, Zuckerberg settling an old Facebook score, and the dominant American social-media company corralling its users into a new interface in hopes of getting them to reengage with its properties. Musk, by so dominating the story of social media over the past year, and in such alienating ways, gave Meta an enormous gift, a chance to do some fairly brazen copying and familiar growth hacking without seeming like the villain.

Subtracting Twitter from Threads’ launch equation is more than an interesting exercise; going forward, it’s the most reasonable way to think about what Meta is up to here. Before Musk took over Twitter, it was a fairly insignificant competitor to Meta’s core advertising business. Its lone major product was a fraction of the size of Meta’s four, and its pitch to advertisers was comparatively thin, as reflected in Twitter’s financial performance. Perhaps Meta wants to capture some of Twitter’s hard-to-quantify elite influence — Zuckerberg has envied it since both companies were young — but based on Threads’ early form and content and statements from its leadership, this doesn’t seem to be at the core of the plan. Adam Mosseri, head of Threads (and Instagram), wrote on the platform:

The goal isn’t to replace Twitter. The goal is to create a public square for communities on Instagram that never really embraced Twitter and for communities on Twitter (and other platforms) that are interested in a less angry place for conversations, but not all of Twitter.

Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads — they have on Instagram as well to some extent — but we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.

This is a fairly different story than the one implied by the spectacle and timing of the Threads launch, during which Zuckerberg has been eager to draw direct, favorable comparisons to Twitter. It’s also more realistic and very Meta. It’s Threads as a literal and spiritual extension of Meta’s two large, lucrative, and interconnected platforms, Facebook and Instagram. Once again setting aside Twitter, Threads solves some obvious problems for Meta and fills some clear gaps in the product line. Facebook already was at one point “a public square for communities” and a “conversation platform,” but its users are skewing older, are disengaging, and have long been curious about other platforms. Instagram, Facebook’s de facto successor within the company, started as an image-sharing platform and was subsequently subjected to a series of comprehensive engagement- and revenue-oriented redesigns culminating in its current form as, among other things, the largest of the American tech industry’s lineup of TikTok clones.

Put another way, people talking to each other was once a pretty good business for Meta back when it was still called Facebook. Over time, it pivoted to even better businesses — video content, mostly — and kept growing as a company. The declining relevance of Facebook left some gaps in Meta’s connect-the-world platforms that Instagram and WhatsApp (but also Twitter) could never quite fill. And so, under the auspices of a new “conversation platform,” we end up with Threads, which is distinct from Meta’s previous efforts to absorb and replicate the success of other platforms (Snapchat, YouTube, TikTok, Twitch) chiefly in that the company is now copying itself. 

Threads launched with an algorithmic feed of mostly text posts, but also images and some videos, as a pretty good imitation of Facebook News Feed circa, say, 2015. It prompted new users to follow their Instagram friends as soon as they arrived and has an Instagram link at the top of every profile. (Meta, for what it’s worth, has promised Threads will eventually harness ActivityPub to let users take their accounts elsewhere.) For many of its early adopters, it seems to be functioning like, well, an Instagram for text. Nothing about this has much to do with Twitter or what Twitter has done or what Twitter may do. Instead, it’s a slightly new strategy from the Facebook playbook, an attempt to return to products that have worked before, and a hope that it may be possible to turn back the clock to a time when Meta’s products felt new and, for the company and its customers, full of potential. It’s Threadbook. (Facethread?) It’s Threadstagram! Don’t take my word for it:

Photo: @zuck/Threads

So far, so good. For Meta, Threads is already an opportunity to get 100 million (and counting) of its (mostly) existing customers posting, sharing, and engaging as they used to (or just a bit more). For users, Threads’ early days have offered something similarly rare within Meta’s ecosystem: a sense of sudden growth. Everyone’s joining! You get followers right away! People seem to see your posts even if your network is pretty small! It’s a fleeting feeling that Meta hasn’t been able to supply to its customers for a long time and a welcome contrast with their recent experiences in the company’s other apps, where users are more accustomed to being confronted with new posting styles — Stories, Reels, Live video — in the familiar and often stagnant contexts of their Instagram or Facebook accounts. On Meta’s older apps, if growth still feels like a prospect at all, it has become a chore or a job.

This sense of abundance is, to be fair, somewhat artificial. Threads effectively simulates organic growth by rebuilding, in a new app, a user’s network of Instagram friends. (A style of growth hacking that, again, will be quite familiar to longtime patrons of Meta’s feed-based products.) In the long term, this may be a risky strategy. Many users’ Instagram networks are old and idiosyncratic; even tightly curated feeds are made of up people you followed for one kind of content who are now trying to supply you with another. (After an initial burst of activity, at least on my Threads feed, nobody seems quite sure what to post next.)

Success is far from guaranteed here or even especially likely. Maybe Threads has 100 million new users! Or maybe 100 million Instagram users just downloaded a new app to see what was there and because they basically already had an account there. We’ll see. For Threads, though, at least we know what success looks like. It’s not becoming the next Twitter. Meta wants it to be the next Instagram, though Facebook would do.

Zuckerberg’s Threads Is an Early Success — Thanks to Musk