Threads is a week old today, and in those short seven days, the service has lapped generative AI as the favorite tech story of the mainstream press. And why not? Threads has managed to scale past 100 million users in just five days — far faster than ChatGPT, which broke TikTok’s record just a few months ago. That’s certainly news — and news is what drives the press, after all.
Threads has re-established Meta as a hero in tech’s endless narrative of good and evil — I can’t count the number of posts I’ve seen from influential public figures joking that, thanks to Threads, they actually like Mark Zuckerberg again. And Meta can certainly relish this win — the company has been the scapegoat for the entire tech industry for the better part of a decade.
But were I an executive at Meta responsible for Threads, I’d not be sleeping that well right about now. As they well know, the relationship between the tech industry and the press can shift in an instant. Glowing stories about breaking app download records can just as quickly become hit pieces about how Meta has leveraged its monopoly position in social media to vanquish yet another market, killing free speech and “real news” along the way. So far that story has been confined to the fringes of Elon’s bitter troll army over on whatever remains of Twitter these days, but should Threads lap Twitter as the largest app focused on creating a “public square” — whatever that means — the worm will quickly turn.
Meta has a tiger by the tail here, and so far, they’ve been working hard to tamp down expectations. Both Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri have been active on Threads, posting daily with both practiced humility (“gosh this thing is succeeding well beyond our expectations,” “we’re just at the starting line,” “we know we’re over our skis”) and reminders about how Threads isn’t like Twitter. Mosseri, for example, has downplayed the role of news — Twitter’s main differentiation and its endlessly maddening Achilles hell; Zuckerberg’s first Thread defined his new service as “an open and friendly public space” — prompting Musk to fire back that he’d rather be “attacked by strangers on Twitter” than live in “hide the pain” world of Instagram.
But The News — with all of its complications — is coming for Threads. I left Twitter more than six months ago, and while I sometimes missed feeling connected to the real time neural net the app had become for me, I almost instantly felt better about both myself and the world. Living on Twitter means navigating an unceasing firehose of toxicity, and Musk’s interventions only worsened the poisonous atmosphere of the place. I joined Threads a half hour after it launched, and indeed, it was a giddy place, its initial users basking in the app’s surprising lack of toxicity.
Other journalists have noticed the same thing. For now, the narrative around Threads centers on its extraordinary growth, but a close second is how “nice” the place feels compared to Twitter. Meta executives would like to keep it that way — combining “what Instagram does best” with “a friendly place for public conversation,” as Zuck put it in his first post.
To that fantasy, I say good luck to you, Mr. Zuckerberg. Keeping Threads “nice” means controlling the conversation in ways that are sure to antagonize just about everyone. No company — not Facebook, not Instagram, not Reddit, and certainly not Twitter, has figured out content moderation at scale. If, as Zuckerberg claimed, the goal with Threads is to create a “town square with more than 1 billion people,” the center of that square will have to contain news. And news, I can tell you from very personal experience, is the front door to a household full of humans screaming at each other.
“Politics and hard news are inevitably going to show up on Threads,” Mosseri told the Hard Fork podcast last week, “But we’re not going to do anything to encourage those verticals.”
I’ll have more to say about that sentiment in another post, but for now, I’ll leave it at this: When Threads hits 300 million active users — roughly the size of Twitter — the love affair between the press and Threads will more than likely come to an end.
I’ll be talking to Meta’s head of advertising Nicola Mendelsohn at P&G Signal tomorrow. You can register here for free.