As Twitter has become even less-filtered than before Elon Musk acquired the social network, many advertisers and some members have stopped participating. The most recent user-annoying action put rate limits on how many posts users could view. Does the combination of declining ad revenue and member unrest create an opening for a competitive service?
Mark Zuckerberg and Meta apparently think so, and are launching an app called Threads. The Apple App Store has the app listed for pre-order, with availability starting July 6. Presumably versions for other platforms will follow quickly.
To date, none of the Twitter-like apps that are Musk’s competition has gained major traction. Mastodon was an early beneficiary of the chaos at Twitter and has about 1.2 million monthly users. That’s not insignificant, but it pales in comparison to Twitter’s 436 million.
Other competitors fare even worse. Spill reportedly added 100,000 new users during the weekend that Twitter imposed rate limits. That would be a huge win for almost any new app, but it is a drop in the bucket for big social networks.
The Network Effect
Starting a successful social network is notoriously difficult due to “the network effect.” Any social network is only valuable when the people you want to interact with—friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, etc.—are part of the network. When you join a network and don’t know anyone, you’ll likely see minimal interaction with your posts. And, any interaction you do get will be from strangers. This discourages investing time in that network.
It’s only when you have many friends on a network that it becomes useful and valuable.
Zuckerberg understands how difficult it is to start and grow a network. Facebook acquired both Instagram and WhatsApp because both of those apps had grown quickly and hit critical mass for continued growth. Facebook could have focused on creating its own lookalike apps, but that would have been a long, expensive path with no guarantee of success in the face of established competition.
Social Network Science
In Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, author Nir Eyal shows how successful products like Instagram and others employed a process he described as the Hooked Model — a four-step cycle that repeats and forms ever more habitual behavior.
One of those steps is investment — every post a user makes increases their investment in that product and makes switching more difficult. If you’ve posted thousands of travel photos on Instagram and have thousands of followers, the odds that you’ll switch to another photo-sharing app and start over are very small.
Because of their habit-forming nature, established social apps offer formidable resistance to would-be competitors.
Success Social Network Startups
The formula for the few social networks that have succeed is fairly simple. First, they make signing up frictionless. In Friction, I describe how WhatApp compressed the entire process of onboarding a new user to just two minutes. That included verifying their mobile number and, controversially, blasting out invitations to the user’s contact list. This combination of speed and inviting friends led to viral growth and ultimately a hugely valuable network.
Second, they employ the concepts in Eyal’s framework—behavior triggers, rewards, etc. Once the user signs up, successful networks make it easy to post or message and use notifications to keep users coming back. Ultimately, actual notifications aren’t necessary—the user’s brain turns feelings like boredom or loneliness into triggers to visit, say, Instagram or Facebook.
Can Meta Win?
Zuckerberg clearly sees the value of a Twitter-like app. He tried to buy Twitter at least twice. At the same time, until now Meta hasn’t launched a competitor. Zuckerberg also understands the difficulty of taking on a big network with an entrenched user base.
Now Twitter looks vulnerable. Advertisers are declining to place ads next to questionable speech and blatant misinformation. Trending topics are dominated by partisan accounts posting memes and insults. Many long-time users are unhappy with the state of affairs.
Furthermore, an emphasis on free speech by Musk means that stepped-up moderation and an increase in civility is unlikely.
It will be very difficult to dent Twitter’s domination of short post messaging. But, Meta has a few advantages smaller operations like Mastodon and Spill lack.
Facebook has about 3 million monthly users. Instagram has about half as many. That means even Instagram is more than three times the size of Twitter.
From a purely marketing standpoint, Meta’s enormous user base makes it formidable.
Even more important, Meta’s users are established social accounts—it can make onboarding to Threads as simple as a click or two. This negates the network effect advantage Twitter enjoys, at least to a degree. If all your friends are on Threads immediately, your incentive to participate there is much higher.
Account Integrity And Moderation
Every network has a fake account problem. Fake accounts are used to promote spammy sales pitches, amplify political views, spread misinformation, etc.
Anonymous accounts are different. They may represent actual humans, but, liberated from real-world accountability, are more likely to post misinformation, radical views and insults.
The majority of problematic posts I see on Twitter—obvious misinformation, distorted facts, name-calling, racism, misogyny, etc.—seem to come from anonymous or fake accounts. Even verified accounts have been shown to be easy to fake.
Facebook isn’t without a fake account problem. But, Meta says the number of fake accounts identified was reduced from 1.3 billion to 426 million in the first quarter of this year.
From a moderation standpoint, Meta seems more interested in maintaining a safe space for advertisers and users than Twitter. Boasting about “free speech” guarantees people will push the limits with their content, if there are indeed limits.
My own experience in building communities is that most people prefer moderation that keeps out spam and obnoxious behavior. A small percentage of users are incensed by the lack of so-called free speech, but they are rarely missed when banned. This works in smaller communities, but to implement at the scale of Facebook or Instagram is a huge challenge.
The combination of a huge, instant user base and a content environment perceived as friendlier and more controlled create a narrow path to success.
In the coming days and weeks, we’ll know how Facebook plans to grow Threads. In the meantime, I’d predict that they take some obvious steps:
- Make onboarding Instagram (and Facebook) users virtually frictionless.
- Build Threads directly into Instagram and Facebook for notifications and easy access.
- Offer cross-posting to Threads where it makes sense.
- Let Instagram and Facebook users see Threads activity from existing connections to encourage interacting there.
- Leverage existing account verification and moderation infrastructure to keep Threads from degenerating into unchecked spam and meme wars.
The odds of Threads surpassing Twitter remain small but are far better than they would have been a year ago.