Why the Early Success of Threads May Crash Into Reality

A big tech company with billions of users introduces a new social network. Leveraging the popularity and scale of its existing products, the company intends to make the new social platform a success. In doing so, it also plans to squash a leading competitor’s app.

If this sounds like Instagram’s new Threads app and its push against its rival Twitter, think again. The year was 2011 and Google had just rolled out a social network called Google+, which was aimed as its “Facebook killer.” Google thrust the new site in front of many of its users who relied on its search and other products, expanding Google+ to more than 90 million users within the first year.

But by 2018, Google+ was relegated to the ash heap of history. Despite the internet search giant’s enormous audience, its social network failed to catch on as people continued flocking to Facebook — and later to Instagram and other social apps.

In the history of Silicon Valley, big tech companies have often become even bigger tech companies by using their scale as a built-in advantage. But as Google+ shows, bigness alone is no guarantee of winning the fickle and faddish social media market.

This is the challenge that Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, now faces as he tries to dislodge Twitter and make Threads the prime app for real-time, public conversations. If tech history is any guide, size and scale are solid footholds — but ultimately can only go so far.

What comes next is much harder. Mr. Zuckerberg needs people to be able to find friends and influencers on Threads in the serendipitous and sometimes weird ways that Twitter managed to accomplish. He needs to make sure Threads isn’t filled with spam and grifters. He needs people to be patient about app updates that are in the works.

In short, he needs users to find Threads compelling enough to keep coming back.

Mark Zuckerberg now faces the challenge of winning the fickle and faddish social media market as he tries to make Threads the prime app for real-time, public conversations.Credit…Jason Henry for The New York Times

“If you launch a gimmick app or something that isn’t fully featured quite yet, it might be counterproductive and you could see a lot of people churn right back out the door,” said Eric Seufert, an independent mobile analyst who closely watches Meta’s apps.

For the moment, Threads appears to be an overnight success. Within hours of the app’s introduction last Wednesday, Mr. Zuckerberg said 10 million people had signed up for Threads. By Monday, that had soared to 100 million people. It was the first app to do so in that time frame, exceeding the chatbot ChatGPT, which gained 100 million users within two months of its release, according to the analytics firm Similarweb.

Mr. Seufert, the mobile analyst, called the numbers that Threads racked up “objectively impressive and unprecedented.”

Elon Musk, who owns Twitter, has appeared agitated by Threads’ momentum. With 100 million people, Threads is quickly surging toward some of Twitter’s last public user numbers. Twitter disclosed it had 237.8 million daily users in July 2022, four months before Mr. Musk bought the company and took it private.

Mr. Musk has taken action. On the same day last week that Threads was officially unveiled, Twitter threatened to sue Meta over the new app. On Sunday, Mr. Musk called Mr. Zuckerberg a “cuck” on Twitter. Then he challenged Mr. Zuckerberg to a contest to measure a specific body part and compare whose was larger, alongside an emoji of a ruler. Mr. Zuckerberg has not responded.

(Before Threads was announced, Mr. Musk separately dared Mr. Zuckerberg to fight a “cage match.”)

What Mr. Musk lacks at Twitter, Mr. Zuckerberg has in abundance at Meta: enormous audiences. More than three billion users regularly visit Mr. Zuckerberg’s constellation of apps, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.

Mr. Zuckerberg has had plenty of experience nudging millions of people in those apps to use another of the apps. In 2014, for instance, he removed Facebook’s private messaging service from inside the social network’s app and forced people to download another app, called Messenger, to continue using the service.

Threads is now tied closely to Instagram. Users are required to have an Instagram account to sign up. People can import their entire following list from Instagram to Threads with just one tap of the screen, saving them from trying to find new people to follow on the service.

On Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested there was more he could do to push Threads’s growth. He had not “turned on many promotions yet” for the app, he wrote in a Threads post.

Some users have wondered why Threads seems to have made its debut without some basic functions that are used to inside Instagram, like a search function that allows people to browse trending hashtags.

“There are a lot of features Threads did not launch with, possibly by design, to keep it brand safe” and minimize controversy from the start, said Anil Dash, a tech industry veteran and writer. “What does that do to the long-term interesting-ness of the network?”

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a Threads post on Monday that there was a running list of new features to add to the new app that people have requested. “They say, ‘make it work, make it great, make it grow,’” he wrote, adding, “I promise we will make this thing great.”

Yet bolting on a new app to a company’s existing products can eventually run out of steam.

In 2011, after Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and then chief executive, cloned Facebook with Google+, users soon grew bored of the novelty of the new social network and stopped using it. Some saw Google+ as something that was forced on them while they were just trying to gain access to their Gmail.

Bill Gates, a founder of Microsoft, used the scale of the Windows operating system to bundle other software with it and crush competitors. Credit…Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Former Google employees described the product as “fear-based,” built only in response to Facebook and without a clear vision of why people should be using it instead of a competing network. In a post-mortem of what went wrong, one ex-Googler wrote that Google+ mainly defined itself by “what it wasn’t — i.e. Facebook.”

Of course Mr. Zuckerberg could pull a Bill Gates with Threads. Mr. Gates, a founder of Microsoft, built his empire on Windows, the operating system that powered a generation of personal computers — and then successfully used that scale to crush competitors.

Once Windows dominated PCs, Mr. Gates famously bundled other products with the software for free. When he did that in 1995 by packaging the web browser Internet Explorer with Windows, Internet Explorer soon turned into the default browser on millions of computers, overtaking the then-dominant browser, Netscape, in just four years.

Even so, Mr. Gates was eventually stung by the tactic. In 1998, the Justice Department sued Microsoft for unfairly using Windows’ market power to snuff out the competition. In 2000, a federal judge ruled against Mr. Gates’s company, saying that Microsoft had put an “oppressive thumb on the scale of competitive fortune.”

Microsoft later settled with the government and agreed to make concessions.

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