It’s edging towards 30 degrees here in London — the temperature at which pavements boil and commuters melt — and I’m safely ensconced in the subterranean lair beneath my local coffee shop. I’m writing this on my laptop, and in my browser I have, tabbed, one million different social media sites.
Yes, we’re talking about Threads. The incendiary, yet quite boring, release of Meta’s new Twitter-clone has got people talking this week — mainly on Twitter, though. It is just the latest development in the great microblogging war which has been rumbling, in Cold format, since controversial billionaire Elon Musk blew his (investors’) fortune(s) on “the bird site” last year. Now it feels like it’s materialising into something more concrete. A genuinely hostile corporate war waged between two of the world’s richest men — and two of its most confused thinkers.
Ding ding ding. In the red corner, Elon Musk. The South African born former PayPal founder turned electric vehicle maestro, championing Twitter, the original microblogging platform. Founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Noah Glass and Biz Stone, Twitter has become the world-leading form of communication for journalists to talk to one another. The ubiquity of the site within the media, and politics, has given it an outsized influence amongst the global elite, which led, in October last year, to its acquisition, for a staggering $44bn, by Musk. Mr Musk had been a consistent user of the platform for some years, inspired perhaps by former US President Donald Trump, who used Twitter as a personal mouthpiece and headline generator. But since forking out a premium lump of cash just over six months ago, things have not been smooth sailing…
Ding ding ding. In the blue corner, Mark Zuckerberg. The geek who changed the world, making a million friends (and, if Aaron Sorkin is to be believed, a few enemies), has been struggling under the weight of the big question: what’s next for social media? Having made the savvy acquisition of Instagram back in 2012 (for the price of $1bn, which was deemed high at the time but now feels like a steal), Zuckerberg’s empire has begun to wane. Facebook’s userbase has aged by about two generations, with Gen Z and millennials all but abandoning the site, while the Metaverse project — a VR delusion into which he sunk billions of dollars — is being sold for parts. Add to that the frustration of seeing Elon Musk — a man constitutionally dissimilar to Zuckerberg — trying to muscle in and take the social media crown, and it was inevitable that Zuck would do something…
That something is Threads, an Instagram spin-off that is… well, who are we kidding? It’s Twitter. To describe Threads as anything other than Twitter with a different name and logo would add confusion and do a disservice to the original concept for Twitter.
Now, I don’t have a dog in the legal fight that is bound to ensue between Twitter and their Meta facsimile. While it’s patently obvious from the interface — which includes a heart-shaper fav, a speech bubbled reply, a dual arrow re-Thread and a paper aeroplane forward — that it is making a lunge for Twitter’s lunch, I don’t agree that Twitter itself is the most starkly original concept. Like many of the best products in the world, it was a synthesis of existing elements of the blogosphere — the genius was in the character-limit and the way it invited virality. And let’s not forget, the retweet was added in 2010 (Tumblr, for example, had already familiarised users with the reblog mechanism) and the “like button” has an even longer history (its genesis, really, is with the site Digg.com) and don’t forget that Twitter transitioned, in 2015, from a star-shaped Fav icon to a heart-shape Like icon. That was a move that brought it, in wording, in line with Facebook.
I also think there’s something quite unedifying about the site of two insanely rich, successful companies squabbling over IP which amounts, really, to little more than “sharing sentences with your friends”. The more interesting question is, as far as I’m concerned, will Threads be a success?
I’m inclined to say no (though I accept I am making myself a hostage to fortune here). Certainly it has a better chance of success than Bluesky (whatever that is) or Mastodon (which seems like it can only be for nerds). Already there are users who have millions of followers on Threads, due to the way that sign-ups have imported accounts over from Instagram. So that gives it a competitive advantage over basically any app in the world. I myself signed up pretty much immediately. If you’re not first (or early) you’re last (or late), was my rough thinking. At time of writing I have done three (3) Thread-tweets and have 48 followers.
The problem, as far as I can see it, is quite simple: I have no interest in following my friends on Twitter. I don’t follow them. I follow journalists and academics, politicians and authors, but I don’t follow my real-life friends. There are two reasons for that: firstly, many of them (the majority I’d say) don’t have public-facing Twitter accounts, and, secondly, I am not interested in their one-sentence thoughts. Most of the non-journalists I know don’t feel the need to live-blog their waking thoughts and analysis of the world, and, if they did, they would be the sort of mundane observations that typified early, pre-meme, social media. “Just had a scrummy avo-on-toast! Yum!” or “Dogs truly are man’s best friend #bffforlife #furbaby”.
But the integration with Instagram has meant that, already, my home screen feels weirdly populated by people I — *shudder* — know in the real world. I can’t unfollow them now, because that would be rude, so I find myself trapped in a weird social limbo.
In that sense, the migration from Instagram — where people get to use easy, quick photos as a substitute for the labour of the written word — to Threads is a tricky one. And really it only makes sense if you are sick of Twitter, or feel that, while Elon Musk is at the helm, to Tweet is to tacitly endorse the Musk premiership. This is a position that I understand, even if I don’t hold it myself (after all, Facebook is guilty of many of the things that people accuse Twitter of, and, indeed, is more culpable given the size of its reach). But is that caucus of users sufficiently big, or noisy, to get past the fact that Twitter is still market-leading and functional? I’m not so sure.
Of course, the question of how functional Twitter is will be hotly debated. Earlier this week there was a “rate limit” imposed for arcane anti-data scrubbing reasons, which will likely go down in history as one of the great corporate self-owns. But even with that (and I should note that I, an active Twitter user, have not at any point encountered this mystery “rate limit”) the site remains broadly functional. Sure, I’ve lost my blue tick — an insult that I have referred to The Hague — and probably the porn-bots have been empowered. But this is nothing we haven’t seen before, either on Twitter or across social media. The balance of power is always shifting, the dynamics changing. As long as I can type out my stupid little thoughts and broadcast them to my few followers, Twitter is working.
So it’s hard to get enthusiastic about also having to use a new site that has exactly the same functionally and no competitive advantages, other than the fact that I get to start from scratch. I have tended not to be an early adopter of social media (I was a Bebo man for far too long…) but a day spent on Threads made me feel tired. Just bone-deep exhaustion. The desire for cultural currency, to be at the bleeding edge, isn’t worth the slog of using endless social networks. In the end, I feel like I know my portfolio of apps: Twitter and LinkedIn for professional stuff, Instagram for photos of my dog, Reddit for questions I should probably ask a physician. Beyond that, is there market demand for something that reinvents the wheel? Is Threads not simply an old idea masquerading as a new one? Mutton dressed as lamb? Or wolf, dressed as sheep?
Of course, this could all look very stupid in a few weeks. And I appreciate that my tendency to expect better of Elon Musk has, thus far, gone unrewarded. I assumed that a rational, capitalist market would grip Musk/Twitter and shake it by the shoulders. He has now appointed a CEO, Linda Yaccarino, something I thought he’d do at the start of the year, but it’s clear that the man who wants to send people to Mars is still steering the rocket.
A couple of weeks ago it was briefly reported by credulous chumps that Musk and Zuckerberg had agreed to a live MMA fight at an Octagon somewhere in the continental United States. The prospect filled some of the internet’s weirdest people with a strange glee. Finally, they would get the chance to see their billionaire kicking the shit out of someone else’s billionaire! In the unhinged world of corporate fanboys, it was a big moment. Naturally, the impulse to do this fight would be stronger on the side of Musk (who doesn’t seem to care about investors or shareholders) than Zuckerberg (who does), but the younger man had recently got into great shape and might fancy kicking the arse of his rival. Could it actually happen?
No sooner had it been suggested than cold water was poured on it. There would be no fight, in the flesh. Instead, the fight is now happening online — and may soon move to the law courts. Twitter versus Threads will likely rumble on over the summer. There is little incentive for Meta to back down, even if the project isn’t a huge success, given that nothing they’ve done lately has inspired much shareholder confidence. My guess is that, in a year’s time, we will find Threads an integrated part of the Instagram app, much as Reels (Meta’s TikTok attack dog) is now.
But who knows? Many people are hedging their bets and cross-posting across Twitter and Threads. For my own part, I’ll keep scrawling on the walls of toilet cubicles and hope that my observations reach people who are really, truly moved by them.