Threads, a new social media platform from Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta company, launched this month as a direct challenge to Twitter. While Elon Musk’s rocky tenure as Twitter CEO has some wondering if the end is nigh for the company, it remains to be seen if Meta’s Twitter competitor is enough to capture the energy — and audience — of a platform made famous for the ability to instantly share thoughts with anyone in the world. Alex Turvy, who is working on his doctorate in sociology while researching social media culture and memes at Tulane University, speaks about Threads’ blockbuster launch and what to expect.
Threads is here. What are we seeing so far?
Alex Turvy: The uptake has been extremely fast. I think it’s a bit misleading that some folks are talking about it being the fastest growing social media of all time. Really what’s happening is they’re mapping onto Instagram and Meta’s existing social graph since they obviously have a massive audience they can plug into. It’s not nothing, but it’s not organic growth and it raises questions about longevity and actual uptake. One of the big features they’re pitching is they’ve promised to make this a decentralized service, meaning a Threads account could talk to a Mastodon account. That’s a big deal, but crucially, it could also take their followers elsewhere.
Why did this happen now?
AT: Nobody thought it was going to come this soon, most likely including Meta. But I think they saw their window when Elon started rate-limiting posts. So I think what happened is Meta decided to send this mostly fully-baked app out the door.
In addition to studying social media culture, you’re an expert on Internet memes. Were there any that stood out from the Threads rollout?
AT: Mark Zuckerberg famously hadn’t tweeted in a decade, and he tweeted out the Spiderman meme with two Spidermans pointing at each other. No text. Everybody got it.
It's still early, but if Instagram is for memes and photos and Twitter is for corporate and personal brands, what’s the vibe of Threads? Have people assigned it a “personality” yet?
AT: I’ve seen a lot of anxiety about that. People asking what version of themselves should they be on Threads. Should they be their weird, jaded Twitter self or post normal family stuff? Is this a place to post intrusive thoughts like people do on Twitter? It’s going to be interesting to see people sort that out.
Threads is an attempt to create a new Twitter borne from the company behind Facebook. Where do you see it landing between those two ends of the spectrum?
AT: With Twitter, there was always the possibility you could talk to celebrities or prominent journalists. That was the power of it for a long time, and the cultural importance was massive. Facebook has been the opposite, like a Craigslist but slightly prettier. And the algorithm on Facebook is so strange. Last month, the fourth-most engaged photo on Facebook was just a picture of a potato with everyone commenting the same thing. So I wonder if Threads will wind up in a similar place as Facebook where people have millions of followers and tons of eyeballs but very little cultural significance.
Twitter v. Threads has seemingly also morphed into Musk v. Zuckerberg. Despite billionaires losing favor with the general public from a political standpoint, it seems it seems public sentiment has been more positive toward Zuckerberg. What have you seen?
AT: It certainly seems like there’s a perception that Threads is more noble somehow. It’s definitely reactionary, because people are pretty fed up with the whole ethos of Twitter. But you’re just going from one guy to another. If you don’t like capitalist billionaires, there’s no winner here. On the other hand, if Threads actually decentralizes their platform and lets Threads users communicate between other platforms like Mastodon or Blue Sky, that’s not nothing. That does give a ton of power to the user, and no other social media platform has done that before.
Where does Threads fit into the history of new social media platforms? Are there any analogs?
AT: The history of the internet is full of forgotten apps and services. They tried to resurrect MySpace and that didn’t work. They tried to bring back Vine but things had moved on. When you try to resurrect things that were huge culturally, sometimes the culture has moved on, and I wonder if that’s where we’re at with Twitter and if Threads is another example of trying to take an audience from something that’s dying.
Twitter began with a mentality that you could rub elbows with celebrities on the same platform and, with enough work, climb a viral ladder to a similar type of online acclaim. As Twitter loses public appeal, is the answer a new Twitter?
AT: My gut says no. This is a huge uptake that feels inorganic and I’m real curious to see what it looks like in six months. They’ve thrown a lot of money and energy into it, but it feels like trying to capture something that has passed. A thing doesn’t take off because of its features. It has to provide value to people, and it needs an organic network culture or identity that bubbles up from the bottom. It’s searching for that now, and I think that’s what will make it successful or not. Does it offer something culturally that the others don’t?
Perhaps the most important question: Have you joined Threads?
AT: I joined. I haven’t actually written anything. Right now, I’m just poking around.