Twitter watches as Threads struggles to life in wobbly first steps

When Threads, Meta’s answer to Twitter, was launched and quickly garnered 100 million users, it seemed like curtains for Elon Musk’s plaything. Reality bites, however.

The beginning was action-packed, to say the least. Threads had signed up 100 million users in fewer than five days since its launch – a feat that even the wildly-popular ChatGPT took longer to achieve.

Obviously, the app’s direct link to Instagram helped. Users of the popular image-based app were urged to sign up for Threads and, conveniently, see all their personalized information automatically transferred over.

Such a quick rise didn’t really surprise anyone – Meta, the tech giant behind Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram, has deep pockets. And it hasn’t even been launched in the EU yet. When it gets the green light to roll out in the 27-country bloc, its user count will be boosted further.

However, the initial hype seems to be tailing off. Research compiled by cyber analyst SimilarWeb found that active daily users had dropped in the week between July 7th and July 14th from 49 million to 23.6 million. Moreover, over the same timeframe, the average length of user engagement dropped from 21 minutes to just six.

Why is this happening? Of course, it’s still very early, but some are already making comparisons between the so-called ‘Twitter killer’ Threads and Google+. Remember those days? Google’s failed social network was also released with high expectations and was even expected by some to “kill” Facebook. However, it died a slow death itself instead.

“Not a pretty read”

Just like Meta now, Google was already a huge tech firm back in 2011. Seeing the rise of Facebook, the company obviously thought it could leverage its scale and squash its rival quite easily.

Again, just like Instagram is helping to push Threads in 2023, Google thrust its new social network in front of billions of web searches and guided Google+ to more than 90 million users within the first year.

But size isn’t everything. Google+ failed to catch on and, as Facebook continued to successfully innovate and expand, it slowly but consistently lost popularity. In 2018, it was game over.

Google+ app. Image by Shutterstock.
Google+ app. Image by Shutterstock.

The difficulty lies in the nature of the social media market. It’s not that hard to enter the race – battalions of new platforms try to attract users each year. But constant growth, staying recognizable, and offering new public-facing features is something entirely different.

Matt Sweetwood, the chief executive of environmental company Greener Process Systems, compares the start of Threads to the opening of a new restaurant where everyone is invited for a free meal on the very first day.

“Most everyone will go. But if they don't like the food they’re not coming back next time to pay. In the case of Threads, a bunch of people took the dinner, didn't like the food, and just politely (or maybe not so politely) left.”

Meta had to know this would happen, so the drop was known in advance and by design. But it did jumpstart a social media network,” Sweetwood, who’s very active on Twitter, told Cybernews.

To be fair, Instagram head Adam Mosseri has said that he’s not worried. In a Threads post, he wrote: “Our focus right now is not engagement, which has been amazing, but getting past the initial peak and trough we see with every new product, and building new features, dialing in performance, and improving ranking.”

Sweetwood thinks there’s a chance that people will come back to the restaurant, so to speak, if there’s a compelling change. However, he doesn’t think it’s possible on Threads, and told Cybernews that he wasn’t hopeful about the kind of content it attracts.

“I follow people on Twitter because they have interesting or intelligent things to say. I follow people on Instagram because they post pretty things. Take away the pretty, and all you are left with is their language skills. And that's not a pretty or interesting read. It is, quite frankly, awful,” said Sweetwood.

Algorithms and privacy

Again, Threads is still a very new product that will be constantly updated with new features. But many indeed think Twitter – now being rebranded as X – is still more attractive for microblogging.

David Triana, account executive with Delight Labs, a public relations firm, jumped on the bandwagon recently and signed up for Threads. He doesn’t use it anymore though, as he can’t find anything “groundbreaking” in the new app.

To Triana, Threads is Twitter without the aggressiveness. Of course, to some that’s great, but it’s not enough to keep people around, David says.

“I still have my Threads account, but I never posted anything and don't use it anymore. There was nothing about Threads that offered me anything different. It really is just Instagram with a Twitter interface. Personally, and this may be due to the fact that I've been a user for 13 years, I feel like Twitter offers more in the way of a user experience,” Triana told Cybernews.

Digging deeper into the practicalities, Ashley Mason, founder of Dash of Social, a social media marketing agency, noted that users can’t send direct messages to each other on Threads in the way they’re able to on Twitter.

"There was nothing about Threads that offered me anything different. It really is just Instagram with a Twitter interface,"

David Triana.

According to Mason, this takes away its community-building capability, as does the fact that, at least so far, hashtags are unavailable. This makes it difficult for a user to find other content and, of course, for others to find their posts.

Twitter’s feed is also optional – you can either choose a curated “For You” timeline or only see the accounts that you’re following. On Threads, the timeline is a bit chaotic and mostly consists of posts from big, well-known accounts.

“I rarely saw posts from the people I’m following. No matter how many times I spent engaging with accounts I like, to try to sway my feed and the algorithm, I still primarily saw content that’s irrelevant,” said Mason.

Meta’s baggage might be at fault here. Many users have already been turned off Mark Zuckerberg’s other social networks such as Facebook, where you now see many accounts or brands you don’t follow or even care to see, thanks to opaque algorithms.

Last but not least there’s the question of privacy practices. On Threads, it’s just as bad as Facebook – as the Washington Post reported recently, Patrick Jackson of privacy tech company Disconnect says he found the Threads app gobbling data that you might not expect, including details of your phone (model number, screen resolution and time zone) and identifiers such as a timestamp for when you installed the app.

Breaking habits is hard

But, hey, there are no ads – so far. Meta is in no real rush to perfect Threads as fast as possible because the new app certainly won’t become the company’s main source of revenue anyway.

On the other hand, Twitter is bleeding cash, and its experiments with tweet limits or Blue tier perks can be tiresome – especially for users who don’t really want things to change.

A certain amount of calm on Threads might seem attractive to some. As Musk has started the rebranding of Twitter to X, #GoodbyeTwitter is already trending on the platform. It remains to be seen whether the “everything app” is something that millions will want to be a part of.

Delaney Trail, a public relations assistant at Next PR, told Cybernews that she thought people might be growing tired of social media: “With a new app popping up all the time, there is an overwhelming amount of content to consume.”

But Veronica Lin, head of user experiences at Playsee, another social platform, thinks Threads really does have a chance – if it can patch up the expanding Twitter-shaped hole for users.

“Meta coming out with Threads in the wake of the Twitter fallout is indicative of the fact that people crave to be connected in all ways online – whether it be in conversation text format, images, or videos,” said Lin.

“When one platform shuts down, people are left yearning for another mode of communication. We see this in the way nostalgia over Vine ran rampant until TikTok filled that video-centric platform void.”

Threads will need to continuously innovate, of course. Google+ again comes to mind – unique features will need to be offered to remain competitive. Plus, Meta needs to understand that Threads users are entirely different people compared to the Instagram gang. Finally, patience and deep pockets will always help.

“Breaking a habit is hard, especially when it comes to something as ingrained as social media usage. Twitter has become a familiar and trusted platform for many, and shifting to a new brand or social media platform requires a significant mindset change,” Matt Vanleer, head of marketing at Plivo, a cloud-based communications platform, told Cybernews.

Unless, of course, Musk changes your mindset for you – but not in the way he’d wish.

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