A large tech company with billions of users is introducing a new social network. Leveraging the popularity and scale of its existing products, the company intends to make the new social platform a success. In doing so, it also plans to squeeze a major competitor’s app.
If this 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 intended as its “Facebook killer.” Google put the new site in front of many of its users who depended on its search and other products, expanding Google+ to more than 90 million users in the first year.
But by 2018, Google+ was relegated to the ash heap of history. Despite the Internet search giant’s enormous audience, its social network fell short as people continued to flock to Facebook — and then to Instagram and other social apps.
In the history of Silicon Valley, big tech companies have often become even bigger tech companies by using their scale as a built-in advantage. But as Google+ shows, size alone is no guarantee of winning the fickle and capacious social media market.
This is the challenge that Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, now faces as he tries to dethrone Twitter and make Threads the leading app for real-time public conversations. If tech history is any guide, size and scale are solid footholds – but ultimately can only go so far.
What follows is much more difficult. Mr. Zuckerberg needs people to be able to find friends and influencers on Threads in the random and sometimes weird ways that Twitter has managed to accomplish. He must ensure that Threads are not filled with spam and cheaters. He needs people to be patient with app updates that are in the works.
In short, he needs users to find Threads compelling enough to keep coming back.
“If you launch a gimmick app or something that’s not fully rolled out yet, it could be counterproductive and you could see a lot of people walk right out the door,” said Eric Seufert, an independent mobile analyst who follows the Meta closely. apps
For now, Threads seems to be an overnight success. Within hours of the app’s introduction last Wednesday, Mr Zuckerberg said 10 million people had joined Threads. By Monday, that had soared to 100 million people. It was the first app to do so in that time frame, surpassing the chat site ChatGPT, which gained 100 million users within two months of its release, according to analytics firm Similarweb.
Mr. Seufert, the mobile analyst, called the numbers Threads collected “objectively impressive and unprecedented.”
Elon Musk, who owns Twitter, seemed excited by Threads’ momentum. With 100 million people, Threads is quickly surging towards some of Twitter’s last public user numbers. Twitter revealed it had 237.8 million daily users in July 2022, four months before Mr Musk bought the company and took it private.
Mr. Musk took action. On the same day last week that Threads was officially unveiled, Twitter threatened to sue Meta over the new program. On Sunday, Mr. Musk called Mr. Zuckerberg a “cake” on Twitter. Then he challenged Mr. Zuckerberg to a contest to measure a specific body part and compare whose was bigger, along with a ruler emoji. Mr. Zuckerberg did not respond.
(Before Threads was announced, Mr. Musk specifically dared Mr. Zuckerberg to fight a “cage match.”)
What Mr. Musk lacks at Twitter, Mr. Zuckerberg has in abundance at Meta: enormous audiences. More than three billion users regularly visit Mr Zuckerberg’s constellation of apps, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
Mr. Zuckerberg had a lot of experience pushing millions of people in those apps to use another of the apps. In 2014for example, he removed Facebook’s private messaging service from within the social network’s application and forced people to download another app, called Messenger, to continue using the service.
Threads are now linked closely to Instagram. Users must have an Instagram account to register. People can import their entire Instagram following list into Threads with just one tap of the screen, saving them trying to find new people to follow on the service.
On Monday, Mr. Zuckerberg suggested he could do more to push Threads’ growth. He hasn’t “turned on many promotions yet” for the program, he wrote in a Threads post.
Some users have wondered why Threads appears to be debuting without some basic features that are common within Instagram, such as a search function that allows people to browse trending hashtags.
“There are a lot of features that Threads didn’t launch with, maybe by design, to keep it safe” and minimize controversy from the start, said Anil Dash, a tech industry veteran and writer. “What does that do to the long-term interest of the web?”
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a Threads post on Monday that there is a list of new features to add to the new app that people have been asking for. “They say, ‘make it work, make it great, grow it,'” he wrote, adding, “I promise we will make this thing great.”
However, bolting a new app onto a company’s existing products can eventually sell out.
In 2011, after Larry Page, co-founder and then head of Google, cloned Facebook with Google+, users soon got bored with the novelty of the new social network and stopped using it. Some saw Google+ as something that was forced upon them while they were just trying to get access to their Gmail.
Former Google employees described the product as “fear based,” built solely in response to Facebook and without a clear vision of why people should use it instead of a competing network. In a postmortem on what went wrong, one ex-Googler wrote that Google+ mainly defined itself by “what it wasn’t — ie Facebook.”
Of course Mr. Zuckerberg could pull a Bill Gates with Threads. Mr. Gates, founder 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 dominated computers, Mr. Gates famously bundled other products with the software for free. When he did so in 1995 by bundling the Internet Explorer web browser with Windows, Internet Explorer soon became the default browser on millions of computers, overtaking the then dominant browser, Netscape, in just four years.
Even so, Mr. Gates was later stung by the tactic. In 1998, the Department of Justice sued Microsoft for unfairly using the market power of Windows to shut out the competition. In 2000, a federal judge ruled against Mr. Gates’ company, saying that Microsoft put “a thumb on the scale of competitive wealth.”
Microsoft later settled with the government and agreed to make concessions.