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Is Threads the Actual Twitter Replacement?
It's Status vs Scale, and Threads Will Roll
If you’re a new social network, you generally have two routes to success. First, you can invent an entirely new type of social media. A new way to post. Consider the launch of Twitter, which confused people with its first character limit of 140 characters and was originally referred to as ‘microblogging’. Or consider Vine/TikTok, who pioneered the short video format.
While coming up with an entirely new format of posting is daunting, it’s probably the easier path because route number two is to beat an existing social media network at their own game. It is an obvious but underappreciated rule that network effects are really, really strong. It’s incredibly difficult to get people to move from an existing social network to a new one that largely does the same thing, because everyone’s already on the existing one and inertia is a powerful force. You might successfully copy every feature and be cooler people on top of it, but you don’t have the feature of Having Everyone Already There. This is such a rare phenomenon it’s really only happened twice in the social media age1 - Facebook overtaking MySpace and Reddit killing Digg.
Today, Twitter looks weaker to this kind of challenge than any major social media site has in years. There are several competitors coming for its throne, but perhaps the most serious challenger yet is Meta’s Threads, which launched today. And whether Threads or some other competitor dethrones Twitter depends on which theory of social media ends up being true.
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What Kills a Social Media Site
There are two broad theories of how a social media site fails, once it’s already achieved scale and network effects. Each is embodied by one prominent historical example.
The first theory was discussed two months ago in Is Blue Sky The Actual Twitter Replacement? The idea here is that social media’s true purpose for users is ‘Status as a Service’. Quoting that piece:
I don’t know if Blue Sky will succeed. The odds are stacked against anyone trying to dethrone a massive incumbent with huge existing network effects. But if Blue Sky is going to succeed, it’s going to be from the bottom up like this. It’s not going to be celebrity driven and it’s not going to be feature driven. It’s going to be because the status available to a normal person on Blue Sky - via the typical games of shitposting, joking, and overall tomfoolery - is more attractive than the status to be gained on Twitter. Blue Sky needs flame wars, controversies, crazy and interesting posters to make those sort of status gains both legible and attractive.
People post on social media in search of status, and they will tend to move towards sites that offer higher social status as opposed to those with low social status. They’re looking for opportunities to become popular, be seen as cool, go viral, etc.
Our primary historical example for this theory is Facebook dethroning MySpace. Quoting again:
Facebook had a mildly different utility than MySpace, but primarily succeeded because introduced a more potent status game than Myspace. It staggered its rollout from only Harvard, to only the Ivy League, then slowly through other colleges, creating a sense of exclusivity that drove demand. Facebook was somewhat differentiated from MySpace as a product, but ultimately it succeeded by being cooler, by producing a higher quality status game.
It’s hard for younger Zoomers to even fathom this, but Facebook was incredibly cool for the first several years after launch. If you were in college, there was intense desire for your college to finally get Facebook. When it was restricted to college students, high school students figured out hacks to get a .edu email address early just so they could get a Facebook account. It was so much cooler than MySpace, which suddenly seemed lame and overbearing. The story of Facebook’s early success is simply delivering a higher social status than MySpace.
If BlueSky succeeds, this will be the operating theory that explains why. BlueSky is still restricting sign ups, and very much has had an air of the ‘cool kids’ being the first ones in. But there’s a second idea that might be even more powerful.
It’s the Scale, Stupid
The other prominent example of a social media death is Digg, which was eclipsed by Reddit. Early Reddit certainly had some degree of ‘cool factor’ in the same way Facebook did, but that’s not what caused Digg’s death. Digg died because they redesigned their site and completely broke the site’s core functionality, and in a very short period of time the majority of their userbase migrated to Reddit.
Why did Reddit pick up those users? Well, Reddit was the next biggest alternative. Status theory says that what users really want is the site with the highest social status. Scale theory says that what users really want is the site with the biggest scale. You go where there’s the most content, where most of your friends are, where most of the action and conversation is happening. At the time that Digg killed itself, Reddit was nicely positioned as an up-and-coming site that was already nearing Digg’s scale. Users just flowed from the site with the most scale to the site with the second-most scale.2
Scale theory is what Mark Zuckerberg and Meta are hoping is true with the launch of Threads (follow me!). When I signed up for Threads this morning, I was roughly the 37th millionth user to join. This is for a site that’s been active for less than a day, formally. Within the first four hours Threads had already achieved greater scale than every other Twitter competitor - Post, Nostr, Mastodon, BlueSky - combined. Within a day they’ll have an order of magnitude more than all competitors combined.
This is obviously because they’re leveraged the existing Instagram userbase of around 2 billion people. It’s much, much easier for them to scale than a site that’s starting from nothing. Meta is gambling that it won’t matter if they attract the coolest posters or have the best features. Scale is the play. Much like Reddit, they’re waiting on Twitter to degrade its actual core product enough to drive away users in the same way Digg did (which Twitter is making an admirable attempt at doing). They’ll be the natural replacement where everyone goes because they have the second-most scale.
Will this work? Nobody can know for sure. I emphasize again and again that network effects are really, genuinely, incredibly strong. It’s very hard to defeat an incumbent. Adam Smith once said “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” after a British defeat in the American Revolutionary War. His point was that despite the news of a ruinous defeat, the British Empire was in such a strong position it could be ‘ruined’ over and over and over before the ‘ruin’ would stick. This is basically how I feel about Twitter. There’s a great deal of failure in a dominant social media site. Elon does seem to be walking down that path, and the actual core service of Twitter is suffering in a way it hasn’t for years. Even with Elon’s lunacy, Twitter will have to fail over and over and over before it can actually, permanently fail.
But! If Twitter does fail, I suspect that Meta’s Theory of Scale will end up defeating BlueSky’s Theory of Status. BlueSky is indie and open-source3 and cool and has the best shitposters, while Threads belongs to Meta and Mark Zuckerberg who are very much not cool.4 But Threads is going to have a userbase several orders of magnitude larger than BlueSky and ultimately that may matter more than what seems high status. BlueSky is still very small (and not because they choose to be, but because they can’t seem to handle the technical problem of scaling up right now). Status games only matter if you can actually get in the door to play them, and unless BlueSky can also begin to scale quickly, they may just get left behind.
You could make an argument for Friendster’s crash, but I’d argue they never really had scale and existed before the proper age of true social media network effects.
The graph shows search metrics, not site traffic. Digg was still doing more traffic than Reddit at the time of its collapse, but Reddit was eclipsing them in search traffic, indicating they were the up-and-coming future king.
Interestingly, Threads is also built with the architecture of the ‘Fediverse’ and could potentially be interoperable with Mastodon and BlueSky in the future.
I actually think it’s a crucial move that Threads is associated with Instagram and not Facebook. Facebook’s reputation is so terrible these days that despite their scale, there’s a risk that nobody would join. Instagram’s social cool level is still pretty solid.