Disclaimer: Opinions expressed below belong solely to the author.
The “fastest-growing app in history” has just crossed 100 million user mark, prompting media all over the world to comment on how it will change the social media landscape or even pose a challenge to Elon Musk’s Twitter.
Well, I would suggest everybody — especially Mark Zuckerberg — enjoys this hype while it lasts, given that Threads is unlikely to make a meaningful impact on anything beyond media headlines in the first months of its otherwise questionable existence.
Why does Threads exist?
This is the fundamental problem. Nobody really knows.
It offers no new features, it has no competitive advantages and was launched half-baked, without many functions that users have already been long used to elsewhere (like, believe it or not, hashtags).
The app appears to be Zuckerberg’s personal strike at Musk (it’s no secret that both men have been at odds with each other for years), as he seems to believe Twitter itself to be in trouble and wants to take advantage of its — largely imaginary — problems.
It would explain why Threads was released so hastily and thoughtlessly, as if it was a startup a couple of students cooked up in a garage not a platform conceived by one of the world’s largest companies.
And this is likely to become the final nail in its coffin.
The Silicon Valley mantra has long been to launch as quickly as possible and iron the details out later, but that approach only works for startups introducing novel services, not established multi-billion dollar corporations.
When a big brand launches something, public expectation of the service is that it’s going to be at least as good as nearest competitors and offer demonstrable — if initially small — advantages in some areas.
History is littered with examples of costly failures like Windows smartphones or tablets, Clubhouse invite-only social audio app, Google Stadia gaming platform or Google Plus, 12 years ago the fastest-growing website in history (at the time), which was supposed to dethrone Facebook.
And it could have, perhaps, if it wasn’t so painfully underdeveloped at the time.
I still vividly remember the joy of moving to G+ — which boasted a much more modern user interface than Facebook — only to discover I couldn’t even do something as simple as message my friends on the platform (yes, believe it or not, it wasn’t a part of the launch package). So, I had to go back to Facebook.
By the time missing features were added, the hype was already gone and people moved on. Even though Google kept pushing G+ strongly in the following years, it became irreversibly hollowed out.
At one point it did, technically, have over two billion users — most of whom, however, never posted anything. The parent company desperately tried to keep it on life support by tying it into other services (like Gmail, YouTube, Wallet, Maps etc) only to finally give up and fold it in 2019.
Can Zuckerberg do better? Surely not.
Zuckerberg’s biggest problem is that he became very successful, very early in his life. And ever since that happened, at the age of just 20, he appears to have been shut in an echo chamber, unaware of how real life actually looks.
In fact, how tech looks as well.
He has only ever invented one thing: Facebook’s timeline.
At a time when MySpace was the king of the hill, Facebook upended its position by creating a single stream of updates from all of the accounts a user followed, without having to visit each profile manually (as it was required on MS).
This one development has changed the way social media works, setting a standard that all subsequent platforms continue to follow today. Kudos for that, Mark.
However, since that critical development, Zuckerberg has roundly failed at everything else.
He was beaten to image-based social networks, he missed out on videos, and was even late to take a stake in messaging apps.
Of course, he proceeded to fill these gaps by acquiring breakout businesses like Instagram or WhatAapp, and tried to reduce the pain inflicted by rising stars of Snapchat and TikTok, by cloning some of their features within Facebook or Instagram.
None of it was his, though. He keeps playing catch-up, and he has failed to meaningfully develop his acquisitions.
Despite these hiccups, he has still managed to convince himself that he is some sort of tech demigod of social media and it would be wise to bet his entire company on the idea of the “metaverse” — social experiences in virtual reality — going as far as changing its name from Facebook to Meta in 2021.
Zuckerberg is remarkably obtuse for a Silicon Valley billionaire.
He fails to learn from other companies, he even fails to learn from his own mistakes and, to top it all off, he appears to believe himself to be some sort of a benefactor of humanity, on a mission to decide how billions of people interact with each other.
Currently, his only promise for Threads is that it’s not Twitter — or, precisely, that he’s not Elon Musk.
What he doesn’t seem to understand that while many people may hate Musk, equally many love the guy.
Musk elicits a much broader spectrum of reactions — from the most positive to negative. But Zuckerberg gets, at best, indifference and, at worst, is seen one of tech totalitarians, indiscriminately policing speech that doesn’t fit a specific sociopolitical agenda.
But even ignoring his ideological leanings, I don’t think there’s any person on Facebook who hasn’t run afoul of some of its “community standards” — whatever they even mean.
Receiving warnings or getting blocked from the service by poorly scripted bots is a staple for most of the platform’s users — including, as I reported a few months ago, the Speaker of the Parliament of Singapore, Tan Chuan-Jin, who was blocked for merely replying to his followers wishing him a happy birthday.
Zuckerberg has either been insulated from these bugs or treats them as a feature, clearly oblivious to the impact they have on his image and public trust in his dealings.
Just because many people use Facebook doesn’t mean they actually like it or him — they just don’t have any meaningful, trustworthy alternative that would persuade them to abandon years of their social media history stored on Facebook servers.
But it is also why there’s no reason for them to adopt anything new produced by the person who can’t sort out even his flagship platform.
Of course, millions will try Threads — and it’s easy for Meta to promote it to at least a billion users of Instagram it is tied to. But will they stick around? Will they leave Twitter for it? Why would they?
And why in the world would they allow their unrelated Instagram profiles to be irreversibly tied to Threads, so that you can’t delete the latter without the former?
How could Threads have succeeded?
So, if Threads — in its current form — is destined to fail, is there anything that it could have done to be successful?
It is, obviously, difficult to provide a precise answer.
At the very least, however, it should have been no worse than the incumbent leader and offer at least one advantage over it. And it can’t just be “I’m not Twitter” or “I’m not Elon Musk”.
If you’re looking to poach people from somebody else, then the friction associated with the change has to be minimal, and accompanied by a reward.
There are many celebrities and influencers who have managed to already establish a big following on Threads, but this is because it’s just free publicity for them for as long as the hype lasts.
Once it’s gone, it’s going to follow the path of Google Plus — a graveyard of old posts and accounts nobody logs into anymore until it’s silently retired several years from now.
We’re already in an age of social media overload, forced to share time between multiple services and accounts. Why would anybody add another one if it doesn’t allow you to do anything else than others already do?
Threads could only be successful if it found such a feature. But it didn’t.
Featured Image Credit: NBC News