A major tech company with billions of users launches a new social network. Leveraging the popularity and scale of its existing products, the company intends for the new platform to be a success. At the same time, it plans to crush a leading competitor’s app.
If that sounds like Instagram’s new Threads app and its push against its rival Twitter, think again. The year was 2011 and Google had just launched a social network called Google+, which was touted as the “Facebook killer”.
Google offered the new site to its many users who relied on its search engine and other products, expanding Google+ to more than 90 million users in the first year.
But in 2018 Google+ was relegated to the ashes of history. Despite the search giant’s huge audience, its social network was not successful as people continued to prefer Facebook — and later Instagram and other social networking apps.
In the history of Silicon Valley, big tech companies have often gotten even bigger by using their scale as an intrinsic advantage. But as Google+ shows, size alone is no guarantee of winning over the fickle and capricious social networking market.
This is the challenge that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, now faces as he tries to displace Twitter and make Threads the leading app for real-time public conversations. If the history of technology is any guide, size and scale are solid supports — but ultimately, only up to a point.
What comes next is much more difficult. Zuckerberg needs people to be able to find friends and influencers on Threads in the fortuitous and sometimes strange ways that Twitter has. He needs to make sure Threads isn’t full of spam and crooks. He needs people to be patient with app updates that are evolving.
In short, it needs users to find Threads compelling enough to keep coming back.
“If you release a makeshift app or one that doesn’t have all the full features yet, it can be counterproductive and you could see a lot of people drop out,” said Eric Seufert, an independent analyst who closely follows Meta’s apps.
Right now, Threads seems to be an instant hit. Within hours of launching on July 5, Zuckerberg said 10 million people signed up. On Monday (10), the number had risen to 100 million. It was the first app to do so in that time, beating chatbot ChatGPT, which gained 100 million users two months after launch, according to analytics firm Similarweb.
Seufert called the numbers the app racked up “objectively impressive and unprecedented”.
Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, seems rattled by the momentum of Threads. With 100 million users, it’s growing rapidly toward Twitter’s latest public user numbers, which announced 237.8 million daily users in July 2022, four months before Musk bought the company and took it private.
Musk sprang into action. On the same day last week that Threads was officially unveiled, Twitter threatened to sue Meta over the new app. On Sunday, Musk called Zuckerberg a “cuckold” on Twitter. He then challenged Zuckerberg to a contest to measure an intimate body part and compare which was bigger, alongside a ruler emoji. Zuckerberg did not respond.
(Before Threads was announced, Musk separately challenged Zuckerberg to a “cage match.”)
What Musk lacks on Twitter, Zuckerberg has in abundance on Meta: massive audiences. More than 3 billion users regularly visit its constellation of apps, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
Zuckerberg has a lot of experience convincing millions of people on those apps to use another app. In 2014, for example, it removed Facebook’s private messaging service and forced people to download another app, called Messenger, to continue using the service.
Threads is now closely linked with Instagram. Users are required to have an Instagram account to sign up. People can import their Instagram followers list into Threads with a tap of the screen, so they don’t have to find people to follow on the service.
This Monday (10), Zuckerberg hinted that he could do more to promote the growth of Threads. He hadn’t yet “turned on many promotions” for the app, he wrote in a post on Threads.
Some users wonder why Threads seems to have debuted without some basic functions that are used on Instagram, such as search, which allows people to browse trending hashtags.
“There are a lot of features that Threads didn’t ship with, possibly on purpose, to keep it secure” and to minimize the initial controversy, said Anil Dash, tech industry veteran and author. “What does that do for long-term interest in the network?”
Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, said in a Threads post on Monday that there was a list of new features to add to the new app that people had been asking for. “They say, ‘make it work, make it great, make it grow,'” he wrote, adding, “I promise we’ll make it great.”
However, adding a new application to a company’s existing products can eventually run out of steam.
In 2011, after Larry Page, co-founder and CEO of Google at the time, cloned Facebook with Google+, users soon got tired of the new social network and stopped using it. Some saw Google+ as something imposed on them while just trying to get access to Gmail.
Former Google employees described the product as “fear-based”, built only in response to Facebook and without a clear idea why people should use it rather than a competing network. In an autopsy of what went wrong, one former employee wrote that Google+ primarily defined itself “by what it wasn’t — namely, Facebook.”
Of course, Zuckerberg could become Bill Gates with Threads. Gates, one of the founders of Microsoft, built his empire on Windows, the operating system that powered a generation of personal computers — and then successfully used that scale to crush competitors.
After Windows took over PCs, Gates bundled other products with the software for free. When he did this in 1995, bundling the Internet Explorer browser with Windows, Explorer soon became the default browser on millions of computers, overtaking the then-dominant Netscape in just four years.
Even so, Gates was hurt by this tactic. In 1998, the US Department of Justice sued Microsoft for unfairly using Windows’ market power to eliminate competition. In 2000, a federal judge ruled against Gates’ company, saying Microsoft had put an “oppressing thumb on the scale of competitive fortune.”
Later, Microsoft settled with the government and agreed to adopt concessions.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves