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What does the success of Threads mean for the tech industry?

When news first leaked of Meta’s plans to create a text-based rival app to Twitter, opinions were mixed. Twitter, of course, was and still is burning, attributed in large part to Elon Musk’s controversial style of leadership. Since the on-and-off world’s richest man took over Twitter in October 2022, the platform has been riddled with tech issues, revenues have plunged and many users feel disillusioned by the difficult-to-grasp and often contradictory policies.

Alternatives already existed in the form of Mastadon, Tumblr and the newly-launched BlueSky, backed by former Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey. Even so, Twitter had what they didn’t; hundreds of millions of users and a reputation as the place where people come together to share thoughts, opinions and ideas in real-time. If anyone could give Elon Musk a run for his money, it’d be Zuckerberg.

While Twitter is often regarded as the most toxic social media platform, Meta’s family of apps don’t exactly have a squeaky clean reputation themselves. After a decade of privacy scandals in the 2010s and revelations of the harms of Facebook and Instagram, people aren’t exactly jumping at joy that the Zuck has another opportunity to strengthen his vice-like grip on the attention spans of billions of people. But in this case, it has less to do with who and more to do with what. Twitter is fast becoming a shell of its former self and users are desperate to have something that resembles it in form and scale. It doesn’t matter who creates the next Twitter alternative, as long as it exists and does the job.

An Elon Musk tweet saying "You are free to be your true self here."
Elon Musk has attempted to downplay the threat of Threads

Within 2 hours of Threads’ launch, 2 million users had signed up. Within 24 hours, the number stood at 30 million. Threads now holds the title as the most rapidly downloaded app in history. It’s fair to say the launch of Threads has been a massive success. And this reveals quite a bit about the state of the tech industry.

For one, apps don’t need to be particularly feature-rich. Very often, simplicity wins the day. A common complaint about Tumblr, for example, is that it’s difficult to navigate. The success of Threads has shown that even a simple, text-based app can compete with the bells and whistles of an AR-hyped social platform such as TikTok and Snapchat.

Second, it helps to have an existing user base to drawn on; something that creates high barriers to entry in the market. While platforms can signpost existing users to new apps, new entrants need to obtain users from scratch; a much more difficult job. While many users signed up to Threads because they were desperate for a Twitter alternative, and some simply wanted to wipe that digital smirk off of Elon Musk’s face, the success of Threads has without a doubt been facilitated by its integration with Instagram, an app with 2.35 billion monthly active users. To create a profile on Threads, you need to sign in with your Instagram account.

But what about the elephant in the room? Threads is unashamedly a Twitter ‘clone’. Meta doesn’t even try to hide it. Copying and stealing of ideas has been common practice in the social media space for quite some time, causing irritation among company executives, but littler afterthought among users. If an app copies another but does it better, great!

An image of the Threads app, logging in with Instagram
Threads has drawn on Instagram’s large user base

Meta’s release of Facebook Stories and Instagram Stories was a copy of the ephemeral photo sharing feature of Snapchat, once a serious competitor that had Zuckerberg offering CEO of Snapchat, Evan Spiegel, $3 billion to take it off his hands. Instagram Reels was a copy of TikTok, an app that’s had Zuckerberg on edge because of its super fast growth and ability to attract younger users. And now Threads has copied Twitter, achieving the most successful app launch in history.

Is this what’s needed for success in the tech industry? Does a start-up simply have to copy another app that’s doing well and place a minimally perceptible twist on it to justify some supposed differentiation? Do companies really need to innovate to keep their competitive advantage? Can’t they wait for a hungry start-up to do the hard work and just copy their features? In the hypercompetitive space of social media, there appears to be little consequence in doing so. The result is that social media apps end up resembling each other, and the differentiation comes from the community’s culture; many users are moving to Threads because of their disillusionment at Twitter’s toxic culture. And of course, users have more choice, which helps explain why user backlash tends to be limited when one company copies another.

As of now it’s too early to say if Threads will be a long-term success. Apps have grown quickly, only to have the hype die down soon after. Clubhouse and BeReal, while still around, no longer have the buzz they had upon their launch. While Threads may have the most successful app launch in history, in the world of social media, it’s by no means a guarantee of longevity.

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