What “Threads” Tells Us about Social Media Competition

  • July 7, 2023
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Jennifer Huddleston

Meta launched a new text‐​based social media app called Threads on July 5. The app—which is connected to Instagram—has been referenced by both the media and users alike as an alternative to Twitter. There is much excitement about the latest social media app and Threads tells us a lot about the dynamic nature of the social media marketplace and the potential impact of regulations aimed at leading technology companies.

Threads Illustrates Social Media Remains Dynamic

There has been much handwringing about whether today’s social media giants are monopolies. Threads illustrates that there are new entrants into the market and, at a minimum, that there is continued competition between even the most successful tech companies.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter was met with applause by some, but left others searching for alternatives following his changes to the product, including the loss of certain features without paying for a monthly subscription to Twitter Blue and changes to content moderation policies. To at least some users, Threads appears to provide an alternative with a similar text‐​focused experience. Some may have avoided leaving for new social media apps out of concerns about a steep learning curve or a requirement to rebuild one’s connections on a new app. Threads’ connection to Instagram allows existing Instagram users to port over their connections from a platform that they are already comfortable with.

Still, Threads and Twitter are not the only text‐​based social media apps available to consumers. New competitors, including Blue Sky and Mastodon, continue to emerge as alternatives for those dissatisfied with current social media options. While Threads may be tied to an existing social media giant, it is only one of many alternative platforms that are competing for popularity in this format. These platforms all benefit from the United States’ light touch approach to regulating social media platforms, giving way to innovative and entrepreneurial efforts toward launching new social media products. This latest launch shows that social media remains dynamic not only with new ideas, but with new products that build on the popularity of certain formats.

What Threads Shows about How Regulation Can Prevent New Entrants

Generally, the European Union (EU) has taken a more stringent regulatory approach to a variety of technology policy issues. These regulations can stand in the way of new entrants being able to enter the market. Though over 30 million users downloaded Threads within a day of its launch, a considerable swath of consumers did not have access to the app.

Regulatory concerns have prevented Threads from currently being available in the EU, unlike its United Kingdom and United States counterparts. The Digital Markets Act (DMA) looms large in this decision, as there remains much uncertainty around its future impact on big tech companies like Meta. DMA restricts how data can be shared between platforms, having an immediate effect on an application like Threads that imports user data from Instagram. The vagueness of the DMA produces extra hurdles to entry that Meta may not want to jump over until the company has more clarity around how to comply with this recently enacted act and whether their adherence is worth the effort.

Unfortunately, the United States has considered similar policies that would change the existing consumer focus from antitrust to something that allows far more government intervention in competitive markets including social media. For example, had the Ending Platform Monopolies Act (H.R. 3825) passed in the last Congress, it could have complicated Meta’s U.S. launch of Threads by limiting its integration with the already popular Instagram platform—a feature that gave rise to the instant popularity of Threads.

The FTC’s aggressive antitrust scrutiny of tech companies could also deter those companies from launching new products or force them to focus on ongoing litigation instead. For example, the antitrust scrutiny of Microsoft in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a deterrent in its development of a mobile operating system. Microsoft co‐​founder Bill Gates said in 2019, “There’s no doubt the antitrust lawsuit was bad for Microsoft, and we would have been more focused on creating the phone operating system, and so instead of using Android today, you would be using Windows Mobile if it hadn’t been for the antitrust case.” With the FTC engaged in multiple actions against Threads’ parent company Meta, it’s a relief that the company was still willing to launch this new product in the United States. One can’t help but wonder what other products or services from various innovative companies might be waiting or lost out of wariness or the need for direct resources to ongoing litigation instead.

Is Threads the Next Twitter?

For all the excitement and optimism around the Threads launch, some solid caution is also needed. Given the wide array of social media options out there, Threads will have to solidify an audience of users after the immediate novelty of a new platform wears off. It is unclear how its use may fully evolve within Instagram or if ultimately the platform may become an entirely separate form of social media.

While much of Threads is Twitter‐​like, the platform also has unique features, namely the ability to post videos up to five minutes long. In addition, unlike Twitter after the launch of Twitter Blue, all users have access to a longer character count of 500 characters. This may attract a distinct type of content and conversation that separates Threads from other sites. While connection to an existing common tech company may help, as the case of Google’s failed social network or Twitter’s defunct Vine illustrates, it does not guarantee a home run.

Threads does, however, show that new social media platforms can quickly gather public excitement and consumers are not locked in to only the existing options. The question of if Threads becomes the next big social media app should stay firmly in the hands of consumers and not government regulators.

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