Threads, Instagram’s latest attempt at a “Twitter killer” app, launched on the evening of July 5, inviting the same question as every other app that has tried to capitalize on Elon Musk’s extremely mismanaged takeover of Twitter: Will this, finally, be the one to make Twitter irrelevant?
Before we get to the answer (spoiler: It’s “no,” at least not in its current form), here is a non-exhaustive list of the attempts to replace Twitter: Mastodon, Bluesky, Post.News, Cohost, Artifact, Hive, and Substack Notes, all of which have been marketed as alternatives to a Musk-led Twitter, where hate speech, harassment, bots, glitches, and nonsensical pivots have repelled both users and revenue-generating advertisers. Twitter under Musk is undoubtedly a less pleasant experience than it once was, particularly because of the way the platform prioritizes “verified” users, which include anyone who pays the $8-per-month subscription fee (including a seemingly disproportionate amount of transphobes and racists).
It’s natural that people want a more stable place to unload the latest thought that happened to pop into their head or, to put it in tech billionaire-speak, “engage with their followers.” The problem is that the place has to be somewhere worth hanging out. All of the Twitter alternatives thus far have suffered from their own plagues — Mastodon is confusing and unwieldy, Bluesky is still stingy with invite codes, and the others are too niche and unpopulated to recreate the liveliness of Twitter. Plus, we’ve all got serious signup fatigue. The last new app to truly go mainstream in an unavoidable way was TikTok, and that was only after the pandemic forced everyone inside, desperately seeking mindless entertainment on our phones. The dominant feeling about Threads, even on the platform itself, seems to be a disgruntled sense of obligation about downloading a whole new app.
threads is for people who post the “it’s gonna be may” meme in their stories on april 30th— sarah hagi (@KindaHagi) July 6, 2023
Logging onto Threads is like logging on to the internet roughly a decade ago. I have now seen two strangers share their “hot take” that actually, pineapple on pizza is good, a sentiment copied and pasted from all the world’s most boring Hinge profiles. There’s a lot of Fuck Jerry-type meme accounts posting, like, Wolf of Wall Street gifs; multinational corporations throwing up brand-safe drivel; motivational hustle bros begging for a smidgen of Mark Zuckerberg’s attention (and, hilariously, Zuckerberg trying to pitch himself on Hot Ones). Threads is Twitter for people who are scared of Twitter or, as the writer Sarah Hagi tweeted, people who still post the “It’s gonna be May” meme on April 30. Like basically every app these days, it also forces you to look at content from people you don’t follow, so when I logged on this morning I was faced with the horror of seeing Ellen DeGeneres’s weak attempt at rebuilding her awful reputation and former NFT shiller Gary Vee posting about “positivity” on my timeline. Consumed all together, the dominant tone seems to be an attempt at replicating the Obama-era internet.
To be fair, Threads isn’t finished becoming what Meta claims it will be. Instagram chief Adam Mosseri wrote that central features like search capabilities, direct messaging, hashtags, and a “following” feed are all forthcoming, and those changes will certainly make it more useful and familiar-feeling. And the huge, can’t-be-understated advantage Threads has over its competitors is the ability to instantly cart over your existing Instagram following to a new platform, making it far less of a slog to find the people you care about. It’s already broken records: At 30 million downloads, Threads has reportedly become the most rapidly downloaded app ever.
But — and this is a very big “but” — just because Instagram launched a text-based feed does not suddenly make it as useful or fun as Twitter. As I argued last year, Twitter is a platform that attracts a certain type of person, and those people tend to be ones who are better at writing than they are at any kind of visual or performance-based discipline. The best Twitter users aren’t people who are looking for sponsorship deals or mugging in front of a camera; by replicating your follower list from Instagram to Threads, you’re not necessarily seeing posts by interesting or funny people. Instead you’re seeing posts from acquaintances, brands, and influencers, and these are not the people who are going to invent the internet’s next best posting format or a new genre of humor. There is nothing revelatory or novel about what’s happening on Threads (except maybe for the career posters trying their best to troll Zuckerberg, shoutout Katie Notopolous); for now it’s simply a much less interesting version of Twitter, an echo chamber for locals to gif-reply to Tom Brady. “Billionaire tech bros dont seem to understand people just want to read some anonymous outback line cook posting shit like ‘she grunk on my grink’ interspersed with breaking news,” tweeted Andrew Lawrence, and this has always been the beauty of Twitter that, as of yet, nobody’s really been able to replicate.
What’s more, Mosseri has said that Threads will fall under the same rules and guidelines as Instagram, which translates to no nudity and intensely punitive moderation policies. Twitter, meanwhile, has been comparatively welcoming to users other platforms have shunned: sex workers, for one, whereas Instagram has a long history of banning accounts it suspects of belonging to them (including accounts devoted to sex education), even when they follow its rules. Long the backbone of the internet and often the first people to set the tone of a platform, if sex workers and other people shunted to the margins of society can’t post freely there, it’ll only be a less worthwhile place.
The most visible users on Threads, then, are those who’ve made posting on Instagram their job, and those people, outside of good meme accounts (most of which already post their best material on existing platforms), are pretty much all boring, brand-safe, or rehashes of ancient internet virality bait. So far, the main thing Threads has done is reiterate the relative superiority of Twitter, despite Musk’s best efforts to ruin it. Unlike what Musk has tried to argue through whiny posts about how Zuckerberg “cheated” by hiring some of the Twitter employees Musk laid off (he has threatened to sue Meta over copycat claims), nobody is on Threads or Twitter out of a desire to “support” either one of their owners. People just want a fun place to post, and they’ll end up using the better one. If it’s Threads or if it’s Twitter or if it’s something else, at this point, what’s the difference?