Threads was meant to be Meta’s Twitter killer. So what went wrong?

When Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp launched its rival to Twitter, Threads, nearly six weeks ago, it was dubbed the “first real risk to [Elon] Musk’s Twitter empire”.

For the first time since Elon Musk took over Twitter in October 2022 and set about re-making the company in his own vision, there seemed to be a well-funded competitor. Threads quickly gained 100 million sign-ups, making it the fastest downloaded app in history.

But despite those eye-poppingly large download numbers, Threads has struggled to keep users engaged. For example, US user numbers have dropped by 79 per cent from its peak of 2.3 million users in early July, according to data from web analytics company Similarweb. What’s gone wrong?

“I think there’s a question mark from the over how appealing and how engaging in 2023 a text-based social network is,” says social media expert Matt Navarra. However, a more significant challenge Threads faced was uncertainty about what purpose it served, beyond offering a home for disaffected Twitter users.

“I just don’t think it has a place an obvious role or purpose and identity in the social media ecosystem,” says Navarra. “I think a lack of identity and purpose is an issue for them.”

In part, that may be down to Threads’ apparent expedited release: Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, announced the app in early July seemingly to capitalise on Twitter’s travails, and has since been trying to add more features to keep users around – akin to building the plane while flying it.

That is also at the root of another issue Navarra thinks is scuppering the app’s chance of success – its averageness.

“I think that that it doesn’t do anything excellently,” he says. “It does a few small things OK. The main thing that people wanted it to do was to be the big Twitter alternative, and to give them the scale, and reach and engagement and everything else that they get from Twitter, so they could exit Twitter. And I don’t think it does that to a good enough level to pull people in.”

Once people are on Threads, retaining them is tricky, too, not least because of the way the app works and is designed. “It’s a tiring place to find anything out, or to get a sense of what users are talking about,” says Harry Dyer, a digital sociologist at University of East Anglia. “Trending topics can tend to guide and shape discussions on platforms like Twitter, but on Threads it feels like disconnected conversations without a clear guiding thread between them.”

There’s also the fact that it was the much-hyped alternative to Twitter that could have scuppered its potential, says Tama Leaver, professor in internet studies at Curtin University, and co-author of a book on Instagram.

“In the very short term, Threads is the victim of its own success,” he says. “Reaching astronomical sign-up numbers within weeks made Threads look like the next superstar platform, but really was just a sign that the social media landscape is fracturing and Meta being able to leverage Instagram’s userbase in one click meant a whole lot of people tried out Threads for novelty value.”

Professor Leaver also believes that the lack of features put off users who initially came to test out the app, then left when they realised it was not a like-for-like replacement for Twitter. “For those searching for the next Twitter, the lack of searchability, especially the lack of hashtags to organise and cohere community and topical conversations, means Threads is actually pretty hard to use,” he says.

“The novelty of chatting to a small group of people without the endless spam of Twitter was fun for a week or two, but to become useful to people, Threads is going to have to rush out a lot of Twitter’s core functions to keep that crowd.”

The key question is whether it’s possible to do that. Leaver believes that Meta is one of the few companies in the world that can organically win back the users that came, tried, then left Threads when it first launched – but it will require plenty of investment, as well as some time. “The real tests for Threads are future longevity and whether Mark Zuckerberg has the deep pockets to play the long game on that front,” says Leaver.

There is one silver lining to Threads’ initial flop, he says. “Anything that stops people talking about Meta’s failed metaverse bet is probably something good for the company.”