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Is Threads really a 'Twitter killer'? Here's what we know so far

A photo illustration shows the logo for Meta's Threads, an app that gained over 10 million users overnight.
Stefani Reynolds
AFP via Getty Images
A photo illustration shows the logo for Meta's Threads, an app that gained over 10 million users overnight.

Another day, another new app promising to replace Twitter.

The hierarchy of text-based social media platforms started looking shaky as soon as Elon Musk took over Twitter last year, and it's only grown more unstable as he continues rolling outabrupt and unpopular changes on the platform.

That has sparked a host of challengers vying for Twitter's beloved throne, the latest of which is Threads, which was unveiled late Wednesday by Meta, the parent company behind Facebook.

Threads already appears to have a leg up on other Twitter competitors, gaining 30 million users in less than 24 hours.

But could it go all the way, banging the final nail in Twitter's coffin? It may not be so simple.

First things first: What makes Threads similar to Twitter?

Meta is positioning Threads as a new space for people to have real-time, public conversations. And though it's tied closely to Instagram (users need an Instagram account to sign up), the user interface looks and feels a lot like Twitter.

There are buttons to like, repost, reply to or quote a thread. The number of likes and replies on each post is displayed below its content. Accounts can be public or private.

In terms of function, the app opts for simplicity over flashy new features.

But it may be because of that fact, rather than in spite of it, that folks are flocking to Threads in droves.

OK, but how is this different from Mastodon, Hive Social, Blue Sky or any of the other Twitter dupes?

There are two reasons Threads has an edge on those competitors: Data, and scale.

Meta already has more than 3 billion users across its stable of apps (which include Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp), and is making it easy for its existing users to start a new account.

After downloading the new app, existing Instagram users have the option of importing standard set-up functions, including their bio, username, profile photo and follow list.

As of midday Thursday, more than 30 million people had taken that step to join the app, nearly 30 times the number of people who are reportedly active on Mastodon and Post.

The users include celebrities like chef Gordon Ramsay, actor Zac Efron and pop star Shakira. Brands like Airbnb, Netflix, Marvel Studios and Spotify were using Threads, as were news outlets like CBS, Vox and Vogue.

The buzz even sent the word "Threads" trending on its rival platform, with over 1 million tweets on the subject. Some tech junkies are referring to the newcomer as the "Twitter killer."

How does that user volume compare to Twitter?

Twitter doesn't offer regular disclosures of its user numbers, especially since news broke in 2017 that it had long been over-reporting its monthly active user count. The company saw about 326 million active monthly users around that time.

One thing to note is that Meta's owner, Mark Zuckerberg, could've easily launched Threads around then, or even earlier. He tried to buy Twitter himself back in 2008, but Twitter wouldn't sell.

Since Musk acquired Twitter for $44 billion, he has struggled to transform the platform into a profitable venture, slashing the number of employees and implementing erratic policy changes that have alienated some of Twitter's most loyal users.

Just last weekend, Musk announced a temporary cap on the number of tweetsthat nonpaying users could view each day. Twitter also made it impossible to view tweets unless a user was signed into the platform, a move that was quickly reversed.

Even after months of turmoil, each new policy change sparks a wave of tweets about leaving the platform, all at a time when advertising spending has cratered at Twitter, dropping nearly 60% from a year ago.

Musk has not yet responded to NPR's request for comment on the Threads launch, but he previously referred to its sister app, Instagram, as "weak sauce."

"It is infinitely preferable to be attacked by strangers on Twitter, than indulge in the false happiness of hide-the-pain Instagram," he wrote in a tweet Thursday.

What would it take for a new app to truly beat out Twitter?

Tech titans Mark Zuckerberg (left) and Elon Musk are in a fierce business rivalry.
Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Tech titans Mark Zuckerberg (left) and Elon Musk are in a fierce business rivalry.

Threads is facing modern market challenges that an early Twitter didn't have to reckon with.

Escalating data privacy concerns blocked the app from launching in the European Union and are alreadysparking headlines across the U.S..

The app's financial stability is also in question. Meta has laid off tens of thousands of workers as the tech industry as a whole slows down and Zuckerberg in particular continues to invest billions in his virtual reality venture, the Metaverse.

Threads doesn't currently display ads, but Zuckerberg said the switch to monetization would happen once the platform is running smoothly and "on a clear path to 1 billion people."

And then there's the fractured market share, the mess of apps vying to take Twitter's place.

Threads says it's aiming to have the app work in the so-called "fediverse," the federated universe of apps that share similar communication rules. This might be especially appealing to creators or those with a large following who are hesitant to start over on a new platform.

But in the end, the element that might make or break Threads could be outside its control: whether its users build it into the culture they're craving.

Can Threads recreate Twitter's role as the public square?

In some of his earliest missives on the platform, Zuckerberg said he was focused on making Threads "a friendly place," adding that that would "ultimately be the key to its success."

"That's one reason why Twitter never succeeded as much as I think it should have, and we want to do it differently," he wrote.

Tech junkies might counter that Zuckerberg has played (and lost) this game before. He tried to replicate the ephemerality of Snapchat with Facebook's Stories feature, or the compulsive scroll of TikTok with Instagram's Reels. Neither feature successfully bested out the competition.

When it comes to getting users in the habit of posting on Threads, one of the app's biggest weaknesses may be the very thing that might make the launch a success: the strength of the Meta brand.

Tech analyst Faine Greenwood of Tarentum Consulting calls it the "terrible uncle problem."

"The terrible uncle problem is the issue that comes about when all of your relatives, your colleagues, your high school classmates are able to find you on social media," Greenwood told NPR's Bobby Allyn on NPR's Morning Edition. "Younger people, especially, are turned off a platform where they feel like they have to censor what they're saying."

She added, "They don't want to have to deal with literally everybody they know" being in their social spaces.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 5, 2023 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story said that Threads had gained 30 million users as of midday Tuesday. In fact, the app had gained 30 million users as of midday Thursday.
Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.