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The future is interoperability: Why Threads could beat Twitter through the Fediverse

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Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

While Elon Musk has been posturing public beef with Mark Zuckerberg (challenging him to a cage match, practicing with former MMA champions, public callouts on Twitter, requesting very personal measurements), Zuckerberg has responded in a more traditional way (aside from his own training pictures) with the launch of Threads, Twitter’s biggest competitor to-date.

Linked to Instagram, Threads has an almost identical experience to Twitter (pending some updates, like a chronological feed). Unlike any former challengers, like Mastodon, it has had immediate uptick, with Zuckerberg announcing over 100 million signups over the first weekend; Twitter, meanwhile, has an estimated userbase of slightly under 400 million. Moreover, the app is billed as a direct rival to Twitter, with Zuckerberg stating the goal to create a “public conversations app with 1bn+ people” – an opportunity that Twitter, he alleges, “hasn’t nailed”.

Twitter has threatened to sue over ‘misappropriated trade secrets’, claiming that Meta’s hiring of ex-Twitter employees in the last two years has resulted in continued illegitimate access to Twitter’s intellectual property. However far this suit progresses, though, it is unlikely that Threads is going anywhere soon. Not only is it common practice to hire ex-employees from other companies in the tech sphere, but feature borrowing often happens regardless; recall Twitter’s own adoption of Clubhouse’s functionality in Spaces. Even if the suit is successful, Meta can likely pay a fine and move on.

Feature versus culture

The functionality of the app has, by definition, little differentiation – indeed, MIDiA has written before on how all social apps have all become increasingly similar to each other. The differences lie largely in context, use case, and – fundamentally – who can be found on those apps. In this, Threads has a massive upper hand, with nearly three in five consumers using Instagram weekly already – compared to roughly two in five who use Twitter – meaning the conversion to Threads is far easier than waiting for grassroots pickup (source: MIDiA Research Consumer Survey). It also means that, especially for creators and celebrities, it is a more welcoming app to switch to, as they can also automatically convert their existing audiences from Instagram, rather than rebuilding them from the ground up. In addition, the app is tied to Instagram, meaning users cannot leave the platform without also losing their Instagram profile; expect the metrics of Threads ‘users’ to continue to look strong, even if weekly usage dips, should interest fade.

Whether Threads will be able to steal away the ‘culture’ of Twitter is another matter entirely. Meta’s app suite is largely successful due to its inescapable reach; having a Facebook or Instagram profile, or WhatsApp in some countries, is a necessity to keep up to date with friends as the only way to reliably get in touch with all of them. The apps themselves, however, are without much unique culture, with an almost too-broad approach to feature adoption and algorithmic intent to really focus in on any discernible cultural ‘niche’ that users might otherwise stay loyal to. Despite Meta’s best efforts with Reels and Discover tabs, MIDiA’s latest media report found that most users prefer to use Instagram to keep up to date with friends – whereas Twitter users prefer discovery and discussion with new people met online, which may make for choppy use case conversion. On the other hand, Twitter had this discussion-focused ‘niche’, and arguably still does, but sentiment has nevertheless notably cooled since Elon’s takeover and subsequent tinkering. In other words, Twitter may lose its own culture anyway. Many Twitter users are trying Threads, and a lot of them seem to be liking it.

From Metaverse to Fediverse

What Threads does have, however, that truly stands out from any other social platforms, is the promise of interoperability. In its signup terms and conditions, it is stated that future versions of Threads will incorporate the ‘Fediverse’, which is something Mastodon tried to introduce to little success. A digital Fediverse is a world in which there are no ‘walled gardens’ between platforms, with users needing a different account for each app, but rather can use the login from one app, to use any other one. This would mean that not only could Instagram users sign in to Threads through their existing accounts… but likely use their accounts from other competing platforms, like TikTok, Snapchat, or even Twitter itself, to access the app.

The future of digital entertainment is at a crux point of oversaturation. There is too much content, all the time, in too many different places. Consumers are looking for differentiation, curation, simplicity – anything that stands out from the cacophony. Up until now, the answer has largely been ‘niche as the new mainstream’, with users looking to find their quiet corners of preference and sociability. However, Threads offers a different, far more ambitious approach: to host all accounts, all users, all content, from anywhere and everywhere. Meta may still be a long way from driving a VR metaverse from the ground up, but it has the potential to do something far more valuable: co-opt all existing digital behaviour in a Fediverse, where it can own all user data and engagement across web 3.0.

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