With a name like Threads, Instagram’s new spin-off could be mistaken as some sort of sartorial effort. But when the app officially debuted this week, it was clear that the tech giant has fashioned something else — an ambitious Twitter clone that has the Elon Musk-owned micro-messaging app threatening to sue and brands taking notice as more than 30 million users tried it on. That was just in the first 24 hours.
The new text-based app cribs the look of its rival, while ditching some of its peskier baggage, such as caps on the number of viewable posts. Twitter’s recent policy change drew controversy, in part because of the drastic difference between free users’ 600 post limit versus 6,000 for paid Twitter Blue subscribers. Sharing posts works the same way. Tweeting is restricted to 280 characters for everyone but paying users, who get a tome-worthy 25,000.
Posting Threads — erm, threading? — offers 500 characters flat for everyone, and it doesn’t restrict views at all. That’s only logical, given that parent company Meta doesn’t charge subscription fees. Verified profiles rely on Instagram’s blue checks instead.
But the similarities are more striking, both conceptually and practically. In its blog, parent company Meta cast the app as “a new, separate space for real-time updates and public conversations,” which smacks of the way Twitter identifies itself. They look and function in much the same way as well: The main feed in Threads is populated with posts from accounts the user follows, as well as others chosen via algorithm.
The resemblance is apparently so uncanny that on Thursday, a lawyer for Twitter accused Meta of scooping up former Twitter employees to build a copycat app based on trade secrets. It’s easy to imagine that playing out, given that Musk gutted the platform of 80 percent of its workforce.
However, Twitter owes its weakened state to more than human resources issues. Since Musk bought the ailing platform in October, the tech billionaire and political firebrand has alienated advertisers and instituted unpopular changes, like restrictions on views.
“In my opinion, the decision by Twitter to limit the number of tweets by subscription model will impact convenience and the relationship with advertisers and brands who may have set expectations for views [or] engagement and ultimately performance measures on owned and earned channels,” said Zarina Stanford, chief marketing officer of Bazaarvoice. As it is, 82 percent of companies are considering a shift of 6 percent to more than 10 percent of their paid online advertising spend to owned and earned channels, she added.
Twitter’s woes appear mainly self-inflicted. Neither Meta nor its photo-sharing app caused them, but they did see a window of opportunity, according to Instagram head Adam Mosseri. In an interview with the tech press, he noted that Twitter is in a vulnerable position, and that this “volatility” and “unpredictability” created an opening to compete.
How that competition will ultimately pan out isn’t clear, however. That’s largely due to business considerations, like online advertising and commerce — the bread and butter of social media — and neither are available in the new app, at least not yet. But that’s Meta’s specialty, so it’s likely only a matter of time, and that may help explain why Threads has Twitter freaked in a way that other contenders like Mastodon, Post.News and Bluesky didn’t.
In a leaked letter on Thursday, reportedly from Alex Spiro, an attorney for Twitter, to Meta chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, demanded “that Meta take immediate steps to stop using any Twitter trade secrets or other highly confidential information. Twitter reserves all rights, including, but not limited to, the right to seek both civil remedies and injunctive relief without further notice to prevent any further retention, disclosure or use of its intellectual property by Meta.”
Spiro may have a difficult time proving harm, if it comes down to that. In the meantime, brands so far are impressed with Threads’ immediate traction, with some like L’Oréal Paris and Procter & Gamble already staking their claims on it.
But they’re also aware that the lawsuit is just one of a number of unknowns at play. That puts experts like Stanford in wait-and-see mode.
“Getting the attention of social media users is more challenging than ever for marketers, which is why finding the right channel mix matters and is highly recommended for any brand,” she said. “The future of Twitter and Meta’s platform will be watched closely to see what will fit this model most authentically.”
There are other variables. Threads ties into Instagram profiles for easy sign-ups, which is convenient. But this modality can also stoke high early numbers that don’t necessarily correlate to ongoing active users.
It’s also noteworthy that the app launched in 100 countries, but Meta stopped short of calling it a global rollout. That may be due to uncertainties over how the European Union, with its stringent anti-monopoly and data privacy regulations, will react. The standalone iOS app’s privacy disclosures, as enforced by Apple, explains that it may collect highly sensitive data such as health and financial information, location, browsing history, contacts and search histories, among others, so it can profile users based on their activity.
The technical details, however, point to a more expansive play for the app.
The announcement blog post referenced ActivityPub, an open social networking protocol from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that breaks down the silos between apps by allowing them to connect directly with each other.
The goal, according to Meta, is “to provide you the option to stop using Threads and transfer your content to another service. Our vision is that people using compatible apps will be able to follow and interact with people on Threads without having a Threads account, and vice versa, ushering in a new era of diverse and interconnected networks.” Posts from public profiles could have extensive reach, going beyond Threads to apps like Mastodon and Tumblr or tie into WordPress blogs and other apps that work with ActivityPub.
In other words, the new app looks more like Meta’s bid to ignite decentralized social media, alternately known as the Fediverse. The term is a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe,” and like the metaverse, the construct is considered a key part of the Web 3.0 future.
How or if the company will square its Fediverse and metaverse efforts remains to be seen. But Zuckerberg has often publicly talked about the importance of social tools and experiences in his “embodied internet,” making Threads look like an undercover metaverse strategy.
To spur adoption, Meta implored developers to experiment and build new features and experiences that plug into other open social networks.
“We believe this decentralized approach, similar to the protocols governing email and the web itself, will play an important role in the future of online platforms,” the company continued. “Threads is Meta’s first app envisioned to be compatible with an open social networking protocol – we hope that by joining this fast-growing ecosystem of interoperable services, Threads will help people find their community, no matter what app they use.”
That might be an appealing proposition for users, but even if it takes off, the benefit for brand partners appears murky. Fediverse apps aren’t known as online advertising powerhouses, after all, for obvious reasons. Tying ad rates to views beyond one’s own platform looks like a nonstarter, as does targeting or segmenting audiences. But it’s hard to imagine Meta, as a for-profit tech giant, investing resources and setting off a major tech war without gaining revenue or some other sort of tactical advantage. That will likely become evident over time, especially if Threads becomes a hit.
As Bazaarvoice data indicates, brands are already pulling back on online ads in favor of organic content. That appears to be the best way to sew things up on Threads too, at least for now.