Threads might be Zuck's smartest business move since Instagram

7 Jul 2023

Feature Image: Zuck announcing Threads’ several first milestones on Threads itself

As of 2:15pm Indochina Time on Friday July 7, Threads, the Instagram’s “Twitter-killer” app, has passed 60 Million downloads. I signed up & connected one of my secondary Instagram accounts to it just now to confirm, and that account was user # 60,614,427. In comparison, when I set up the official HackerNoon Threads account at around 11am ICT Thursday July 6, about 5 hours after it officially launched in Asia, we were user #6,519,297. Our number would have been a bit lower if we were still in the US, the first region to roll out Threads. Zuck, of course, was user #1. That means, in just over 48 hours since launch, the app had passed 60 Million users, officially crowning it the fastest app that reached this milestone. The fastest growing app in recent consciousness that was able to do something even close to it, was ChatGPT, which amassed 1M users within a week post launch.

There will be more stories on HackerNoon about Threads soon, but I want to jot down a few thoughts on this high growth app, while it’s still new(ish).

Twitter sucks (bad) right now; and people have been desperate for an alternative since Musk’s reign

HackerNoon's AI Image, Prompt "Musk setting a bird on fire"

Twitter wasn’t perfect pre Elon Musk, but it wasn’t the disaster it is today. The latest straw that broke the camel’s back for many people was Musk’s erratic decision to limit access to all Twitter & non Twitter users alike. Specifically, he rate limits the number of tweets not just for regular users to 600 tweets/day; but also for paid users (who pay Musk $8/month to get a verified checkmark next to their name) to 6000 tweets/day. His rationale was that this rate limit prevents AI companies from scraping Twitter data; but I think it’s much simpler than that: he needs the money. “Free speech”, but only if you give me $8/month. Among Musk’s many terrible decisions that make Twitter the hellscape it is today, we have:

Reading stories about Musk’s handling of Twitter felt alarmingly similar to reading stories about the Trump’s presidency. Scandals after scandals. Bad decisions followed by worse decisions. It was anxiety and fatigue-inducing.

So, naturally, people have been looking for a viable alternative ever since Elon Musk took over Twitter. But no platform (Mastodon, BlueSky, Cohost, to name a few) was able to achieve mass adoption, until…

Threads is not run by Elon Musk

HackerNoon AI Image Generation, Prompt "A person addicted to social media praying to the gods"

Look, I get it, a Twitter alternative from Zuck (another billionaire with multiple baggages of his own) sounds a little lame. It’s not even available in the EU right now due to just that, all of Zuck’s fraud history with European regulators. BUT. The bar is so low right now. And love him or hate him, Zuck knows how to run social media WHILE firing a lot of his staff AND not scaring over half of his advertisers. Simply put, the bar for people to like a social media app in 2023 is just, “not run by Elon Musk.” That’s why some people rekindled their hope for Twitter after learning that its new CEO will be Linda Yakarino, who is very respected in the advertising industry. Others go to great length to set up a server for their Mastodon instance (I haven’t).

Lately, Zuck has been entertaining the idea of challenging Musk in a cage fight (lol). I think that was the first time since Cambridge Analytica that a meaningfully larger number of people might actually root for Zuck instead of Musk. It does take a worse billionaire like Musk to make Zuck look civil and worth rooting for.

The Metaverse is still a long shot

Metaverse Zuck, lol.

Zuck, too, was fueled by desperation. The UK’s decision to block Meta’s acquisition of Giphy made it clear that gone are the days of Instagram’s purchase (imho, Zuck’s best acquisition to date). With intesifying regulators’ scrutiny from all sides, it seems that he’s no longer allowed to gain monopoly on social media by simply buying up competitions. The UK specifically cited the fact that Meta already controlled over 50% of the advertising market in the UK as the reason to block Giphy acquisition. He needed to hedge new bets, considering Facebook growth was severely capped, with no end in sight.

In October 2021, Zuck announced the relaunch of Facebook as Meta (our parody here), announcing that Facebook Instagram, and Whatsapp, are just products belonging to the parent company Meta. Ever since, he has burned billion of dollars into this pipedream (reportedly, $10 billions in 2022, and planning to be about $100 billions over the next couple of years).

Unfortunately, the Metaverse had not yet to pan out the way he hoped. At some point, none of the people in there had legs. People’s avatars look awkward, cartoonish, and limited, nothing like the person they attempted to represent (see some here). The Oculus Quest remains quite niched and largely unfriendly to the general public. Unlike the cash counter that is advertising money from Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, Zuck’s Metaverse vision seemed to be quite far-off, and not exactly what the people want, or need, right now.

To add salt to the wound, earlier this year, Apple announced that it will launch the Apple Vision Pro. Expensive though it seemed, this move by Apple might effectively one-up and undercut Meta’s market share into AR/VR. And of course, the growth of generative AI, most notably with chat GPT, has very little to do with Zuck’s metaverse pipe dream.

Threads is shamelessly Twitter-like, and the people running it are the first to admit it

watermark, really? this meme is already overused.

If you are one of the 1,4 billions users that are reportedly active on Instagram in 2023, signing up for threads literally takes 3 seconds, as you can sign in with your existing Instagram handle. Once there, you have the option to import your Instagram bio, profile picture, and link. You also have the option to follow anyone whom you already followed on Instagram, even before they join Threads. That way, once they do join, you would already be one of their followers. A “pre-follow” if you will.

From there, it’s basically Twitter, without the baggage and all the added features. Adam Moserri, in an interview, and multiple public threads on his own account, accredits Twitter for pioneering the “reply format”, which gives the same design treatment for comment as it does for the original post, creating a natural "public conversation”. This is vastly different than commenting on Youtube, Facebook, or Instagram, which gets a “second tiered” design treatment.

The things Threads does have:

  • 500 character limit for each post

  • Ability to retweet (called “repost”), and quote tweet (called “quote”)

  • Ability to comment/reply

  • A like counter, and a reply counter (both can be hidden)

  • Search for users’ handle

  • Way to go back and forth seamlessly between Threads and Instagram. My favorite is the “add to story” button that shares Tweet in a beautiful pre-designed manner

  • As mentioned above, ability to bring most of your Instagram followers with you

  • And of course, a lot of users already, since it’s basically Instagram but “not Twitter” Twitter

The things it doesn’t have (I shared these in my first threads here):

  • A personalized or even just chronological newsfeed that surface only the people you follow
  • An inbox (post all on main, i guess, lol)
  • Ability to switch between multiple accounts
  • Ability to search for anything else that’s not a handle
  • Elon Musk =))

The weird quirks:

  • Threads algorithm seems very random and buggy right now. I was reading an interesting thread, and the feed just refreshes itself. Since I cannot search and don’t remember the handle, that content is now gone forever from my feed.

  • Annoying buzzing and endless notifications as default for some users

  • Owned by Meta.

In general, I don’t think it’s perfect, but I already like and use it way more than Twitter. And I assume a non-trivial percentage of Instagram avid userbase will feel the same.

Threads might save Zuck. But it’s too early to tell.

How a thread looks when I share it on Instagram.

Twitter Lawyer Alex Spiro already threatened to sue Zuck over stealing its “trade secrets” (or, in Musk’s word, “cheating is not okay”). We’ll see how the case go. But at first glance, this is one of the clearest signs of Musk feeling threatened by this app in a real way that he never did with Mastodon or BlueSky (cofounded by Jack Dorsey, who remains a Twitter/X Corp shareholder).

But the true test will be users’ retention, and eventually monetization. In both Zuck’s and Monserri’s public statements, they emphasized the word “friendly”, implying their strong focus & commitment on content moderation. They also claimed that the platform is “decentralized,” as it will implement a protocol called ActivityPub. This means, users of Mastodon could potentially migrate back & forth between the two platforms, as well as users of any other platform that implements ActivityPub. It definitely is a smart move for optic. But given the history of Facebook/Meta’s handling of users’s data, I don’t think it will win over enough users for whom decentralization and privacy are their top concerns.

The app will probably pass 100M users any day now. But a large percentage of the userbase will probably leave after the initial honeymoon period. What they do then, how careful they are with users data & integration (under extreme scrutiny from both regulators and reporters), what features they will add or kill, and most importantly, what users will they be able to convert to long term users, will determine the future of this app, and by extension, the legacy of Zuck.

For now, I know that I have nothing to lose by posting on Threads directly to my Instagram stories, as I’m already too addicted to Instagram.