But the bigger fight — the one about power, cultural relevance, and ego, played out on social platforms rather than in a steel cage — is very much still on. And after the events of the past few days, it’s clear that Zuckerberg has won the first round.
In just a few days, Meta’s new Twitter-killer app, Threads, has proven itself as the most viable contender to actually replace Twitter that has yet emerged. The app has grown so much and so quickly that it’s surprised everyone, including Zuckerberg himself. It is now possibly one of the most downloaded apps ever.
“70 million sign ups on Threads as of this morning. Way beyond our expectations,” wrote the tech CEO in a thread on Friday. By Monday, less than a week after launch, it had surpassed 100 million users.
We don’t know if Threads’ millions of users will stick around — that’s a very big “if” — but for now, there’s no denying that its launch represents a massive success for Meta. And Zuckerberg is basking in the glory. After 11 years of not tweeting, the Meta CEO turned to his rival’s app to troll Musk by posting a Spiderman clone meme on Wednesday. Musk has, in turn, punched back. Musk’s lawyers threatened a lawsuit accusing Meta of stealing Twitter’s trade secrets by hiring employees who had access to confidential information, while his recently appointed Twitter CEO — Linda Yaccarino — tweeted that the “Twitter community can never be duplicated.” As for Musk himself, he’s tweeted through it, posting a steady stream of digs at Zuckerberg and his apps.
“It is infinitely preferable to be attacked by strangers on Twitter, than indulge in the false happiness of hide-the-pain Instagram.” Musk replied to a tweet on the eve of Threads’ launch, taking aim at what Meta has positioned as the “friendly” place it wants Threads to be, unlike its notoriously snarky blue bird rival.
Musk’s dig gets at the core of one of Meta’s biggest hurdles with Threads: its potential to turn into a snoozefest if it doesn’t encourage authentically spicy posts over the bland marketing from professional brands and celebrities that tends to populate Instagram, as my colleague Rebecca Jennings wrote. So far, my own feed has been a mix of some cringe and some genuinely entertaining celeb posts (Martha Stewart’s age-embracing selfies being a good example), as well as content from lesser-known users sprinkled in the mix. One thing Instagram has said it’s not going to be: a place that encourages hard news and politics, per Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s posts on Friday. That could make Instagram a “less angry” place, as Mosseri wrote, but could also risk making Threads more boring than the vibrant public square of world-changing ideas Twitter was at its peak.
But for now, the numbers don’t lie: millions of people — growing by the hour — are excited about Threads. Out of all the many Twitter competitors that have gained attention in the past few months, like Bluesky, Mastodon, and Post News, Threads is the one that really stands a chance.
Threads is the comeback win Meta needs
While Zuckerberg has struggled to convince the public to buy into his metaverse ambitions for the past two years, he has found success again by sticking to the basics of Meta’s business: social media. With Threads, Meta didn’t have to reinvent the wheel, which, historically, has not always been its strong suit. Instead, it did what it has done so well in the past with Instagram Stories and other copycat features: unabashedly cloning its competition with precision and scale that only it can bring to bear. And this time, Zuckerberg struck when a time when his opponent was particularly weak, as Twitter is facing a user backlash for temporarily limiting how many tweets users could see. Although Musk has said in the past few months that Twitter’s user numbers were growing, third-party reports suggest otherwise, showing that its traffic was trending downward by over 7 percent year over year as recently as April.
Meanwhile internally at Meta, Threads is providing a much-needed morale boost following several months of recent mass layoffs, according to several sources who work at the company — with internal feedback groups and message boards buzzing.
Depending what happens next, Threads could be the beginning of a sustained comeback for Zuckerberg, who spent last year pushing a “year of efficiency” in hopes of rebounding Meta from a period of historic stock price dips and stalled user growth. Now, with stock prices gaining in the past few months and Threads generating something that has long been missing in Menlo Park — buzz — Zuckerberg’s staff has something to celebrate.
One Meta employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional repercussions, said they were happy for Meta’s success and the initial stock bump following Threads’ release. Personally, they were also excited about an alternative to what they saw as Musk’s chaotic reign at Twitter. Previously, Meta chief product officer Chris Cox reportedly said in an internal meeting that Threads would be a more “sanely run” Twitter.
It’s a sentiment shared by many social media users outside the company who were eager to join Threads because of their growing frustration toward Twitter, an app that they view as increasingly leaning to the right under the fiat of a volatile CEO.
But other longtime Meta critics have argued that users have no reason to put more trust in the company. Some pointed out that Threads collects a wide set of user information, such as location, health and fitness information, and browsing history — although Twitter seemingly tracks a similar set of information based on details in the Apple app store.
That’s not surprising, because whatever platform it operates on, Meta runs its business by collecting data about us, its users, to better target the posts and ads it thinks we’ll click on (although Threads doesn’t have ads for now). And there have been times in the past when Meta has damaged that trust as guardians of our personal data, from how it allowed users’ data to be harvested for political purposes with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to breaking EU regulatory guidelines on protecting teenagers’ user privacy on Instagram.
Still, many Meta negative-to-ambivalent users set aside whatever qualms they have to join Threads because it was a clear choice against Twitter.
The result is that Zuckerberg — who just less than a year ago was the brunt of meme jokes about his disappointingly basic and legless metaverse avatar — has suddenly become the cool guy in corners of the internet.
One viral meme showed a photoshopped Zuckerberg posing gleefully next to Musk’s grave. Others showed Zuck swinging at Musk in a fight, or a distraught-looking Ben Affleck, labeled as Musk, anxiously smoking a cigarette.
For Zuckerberg, it was a calculated risk to go after the territory of Musk, who has a troll army of diehard supporters by his side, ready to taunt Zuckerberg if he fails with Threads. But the risk was one worth taking. With Threads’ massive success, Zuckerberg is coming out on top, at least for now. After perhaps the darkest year in his nearly two decades-long reign, he has a real win.