Mark Zuckerberg's Twitter alternative targets an already wounded rival
As Twitter flails, Facebook has made its move — or so it may seem. In the early hours of Thursday, the company, otherwise known as Meta, released Threads, its Twitter alternative. Calling it a “Twitter killer” may give Facebook too much credit, since Twitter itself is taking care of that. Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg has vowed to create a “friendly public space for conversation” — in other words, like what Twitter was supposed to be. Short public messages, real-time responses, Instagram and Facebook integration: what’s not to like?
Given the last 12 months of chaos at Twitter, Threads is a sensible move from Meta, yet it’s still closer to musical chairs than actual growth. Following talk of a potential cage fight between Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, the new app slots neatly next to the macho posturing as another display of one-upmanship.
Facebook has not had a good few years. The company’s stock is yet to return to its 2021 peak after falling by over two-thirds, and the last few years have yielded several wildly different strategies, from secure private messaging to the VR-driven metaverse. With large language model (LLM) AI now driving tech prices skyward once again, Zuckerberg needs to keep options open in the likely event that these models fail to deliver on their hype (as Facebook’s own head of AI Yann LeCun has repeatedly said).
Taking on Twitter is, from some angles, a no-brainer. The site has slowly declined in functionality and usability since Musk’s takeover, with no apparent strategy emerging from the chaos. Amid ongoing executive turnover, collapsing ad revenues, desperate monetisation activities, and general disorder, Musk has now introduced unpopular rate limits for both writing and reading tweets due to companies “scraping vast amounts of data”.
Take it from an ex-server engineer who worked at Google and Microsoft: visibly crippling active users is not how to handle scraping, legitimate or otherwise. The whole exercise has an air of executive caprice, with Musk furious that his already unprofitable service is costing more money without benefiting him. Having severely overpaid for his plaything, he has publicly floated one unfeasible method after another to try to extract blood from the Twitter stone. None of them has a chance of working, certainly not at this point. The scraping is just adding insult to (self-)injury.
There is a bigger transition going on, though — namely, the slow death of the first generation of social media. After 15 years or so of growth, churn and flux, Twitter is only the most egregious case of a problem also facing Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit: stagnant or declining fortunes. When Reddit triggered an ongoing revolt among its volunteers by cutting off free third-party API access, it was really facing the same wall against which Musk continues to bang his head. In the low-interest-rate 2010s, Wall Street and private equity firms considered users and engagement a speculative proxy for future revenue growth. These days, pretty much the only thing that points to revenue growth is, well, actual revenue growth.
While Facebook is uniquely positioned to leverage its existing user base in order to bootstrap a public-facing Twitter clone, there remains the inconvenient truth that Twitter never made much money to begin with, turning a small profit only in 2018 and 2019. Facebook can likely squeeze more from such a platform than Twitter ever did, but it will hardly restore Zuckerberg’s company to the exponential growth it once enjoyed. Compared to Apple or Amazon, Facebook’s position is precarious, because social media itself is precarious.
There remains a role for some kind of Twitter-like service, by which truly important news can spread rapidly. But there’s no clear reason why that role ought to be a lucrative one, and for those desperate to make it one, there will likely be more desperate and bizarre strategies to come.
David Auerbach is the author of Meganets and a former Microsoft and Google software engineer.