A large technology company with billions of users introduces a new social network. Capitalizing on the popularity and scale of its existing products, the company intends to make the new social platform a success. By doing so, it also plans to crush a leading competitor’s app.
If this sounds like Instagram’s new Threads app pushing against rival Twitter, think again. It was the year 2011 and Google had just launched a social network called Google+, whose objective was to “facebook killer.” Google put the new site in front of many of its users who trusted its search and other products, expanding Google+ to more than 90 million users in the first year.
But in 2018, Google+ was relegated to the ash heap of history. Despite the internet search giant’s huge audience, its social network didn’t catch on as people continued to flock to Facebook, and later Instagram and other social apps.
In Silicon Valley history, big tech companies have often become even bigger tech companies by using their scale as a built-in advantage. But as Google+ shows, greatness alone is no guarantee of winning the fickle and capricious social media market.
This is the challenge now facing Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, as he tries to oust Twitter and make Threads the premier app for real-time public conversations. If the history of technology is any guide, size and scale are strong footholds, but ultimately they can only go so far.
What comes after is much more difficult. Mr. Zuckerberg needs people to be able to find friends and influencers on Threads in the haphazard and sometimes bizarre way that Twitter has managed to achieve. He needs to make sure that Threads is not full of spam and scammers. He needs people to be patient with the app updates that are in the works.
In short, you need users to find Threads compelling enough to keep coming back.
“If you launch a cheat app or something that isn’t fully featured yet, it could backfire and you could see a lot of people quickly walk out the door,” said Eric Seufert, an independent mobile analyst who closely follows Meta’s operations. Applications
At the moment, Threads seems to be an overnight success. Within hours of the app’s unveiling last Wednesday, Zuckerberg said 10 million people had signed up for Threads. By Monday, that had ballooned to 100 million people. It was the first app to do so in that time frame, surpassing chatbot ChatGPT, which gained 100 million users within two months of launching, according to analytics firm Similarweb.
Mr. Seufert, the mobile analyst, called the numbers Threads had amassed “factually impressive and unprecedented.”
Elon Musk, owner of Twitter, seems agitated by the Threads push. With 100 million people, Threads is fast approaching some of Twitter’s latest public user numbers. Twitter revealed that it had 237.8 million daily users last July, four months before Musk bought the company and took it private.
Mr. Musk has taken 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 “cuck” on Twitter. He then challenged Zuckerberg to a contest to measure a specific body part and compare which was bigger, along with a ruler emoji. Zuckerberg has not responded.
(Before Threads was announced, Mr. Musk separately challenged Mr. Zuckerberg to a “cage match.”)
What Musk lacks on Twitter, Zuckerberg has in abundance on Meta: huge audiences. More than three billion users regularly visit Zuckerberg’s constellation of apps, including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger.
Mr. Zuckerberg has had a lot of experience pushing millions of people on those apps to use another one of the apps. In 2014for example, it removed Facebook’s private messaging service from the social network’s app and forced people to download another app, called Messenger, to continue using the service.
Threads is now closely tied to Instagram. Users must have an Instagram account to sign up. People can import their entire list of Instagram followers into Threads with just a tap on the screen, saving them from trying to find new people to follow on the service.
On Monday, Zuckerberg suggested he could do more to fuel Threads’ growth. He hadn’t “turned on a lot of promotions yet” for the app, he wrote in a Threads post.
Some users have wondered why Threads seems to have made its debut without some basic features used within Instagram, such as a search feature that allows people to search for trending hashtags.
“There are a lot of features Threads didn’t ship with, possibly by design, to keep the brand safe” and minimize controversy early on, said Anil Dash, a writer and tech industry veteran. “What does that do to the long-term interest of the network?”
Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, said in a Threads post on Monday that there was an updated list of new features to add to the new app that people had requested. “They say, ‘make it work, make it great, make it grow,’” he wrote, adding: “I promise we’ll make this great.”
However, adding a new app to a company’s existing products can eventually run out of steam.
In 2011, after Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and CEO at the time, cloned Facebook with Google+, users soon grew 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 trying to access their Gmail.
Former Google employees described the product as “fear based”, built only in response to Facebook and without a clear vision of why people should use it instead of a competing network. In an autopsy of what went wrong, a former Googler wrote that Google+ was defined primarily by “what it was not, namely Facebook.”
Of course, Mr. Zuckerberg could do a 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.
Once Windows dominated PCs, Gates famously bundled other products with the software for free. When he did so in 1995 by packaging the Internet Explorer web browser with Windows, Internet Explorer soon became the default browser on millions of computers, surpassing the then-dominant browser, Netscape, in just four years.
Still, Mr. Gates eventually took to the tactic. In 1998, the Department of Justice sued Microsoft for unfairly using the market power of Windows to kill off competition. In 2000, a federal judge ruled against Gates’s company, saying Microsoft had put an “oppressive thumb on the ladder of competitive fortune.”
Subsequently, Microsoft settled with the government and agreed to make concessions.