Is Threads winning the war with X, and if so is that a good thing?

On July 5th, Meta launched the company’s new social networking app, Threads, by giving users of Instagram, its photo and video-sharing service, first crack at the ability to set up a Threads account. The following week, I did a Q&A with my colleague Jon Allsop, in which we talked about whether Threads would be able to compete with X (formerly Twitter), and how useful it might be for journalists. Just four months later, Threads has arguably become a significant competitor for X, and has done so a lot faster than most people probably expected. The app hit thirty million sign-ups within twenty-four hours of its launch, and then fifty million, and in a conference call on October 25th, Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s cofounder and CEO, said Threads now has almost 100 million monthly users, making it one of the fastest-growing apps in history.

Meanwhile, Twitter’s user metrics are down across the board, and that includes daily active users. Elon Musk, who controls the company, said earlier this year that the app shas somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred and thirty million monthly users, but that still means that Threads has managed to sign up almost one fifth as many monthly users as X, a social network that has been around since 2007. No doubt the turmoil that has continued at X since Musk acquired Twitter last year has helped push users towards Threads, but that’s not the only reason. Last month, Casey Newton wrote in his Platformer newsletter that the Israel-Hamas conflict also seems to have helped tip the scales in favor of Threads, and caused a minor exodus from X.

For more than a decade, Newton noted, people flocked to Twitter whenever calamity struck, attracted by a blend of first-person accounts, verified journalists sharing reporting, and a broad range of commentary on whatever was happening. That Twitter no longer exists, says Newton. There may still be first-person style accounts of the news, but Musk’s approach to verification makes it impossible to tell what is real and what is not, since the blue check that used to denote an official account can be purchased by anyone. And the desire for factual reporting and commentary about the Israel-Hamas conflict, Newton argues, created the latest instance of what Ezra Klein calls an “exodus shock” from X.

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Although there are no hard numbers, Newton notes that he got an influx of new followers after the war began. A post from CNN’s Reliable Sources last month, asking journalists to tag themselves, has more than two thousand replies, with responses from staffers at Bloomberg, NPR, the Boston Globe, the Detroit Free Press, and more. Andrew Kaczynski, a CNN reporter, noted in a post that it “feels like Threads is just getting better every day.” Although it lacked features when it first launched, Threads has added some since, including a web version, a search function, and an edit feature. But it has yet to fulfill one of the promises made when it launched: that it would “federate” with other social networks. Adam Mosseri, the Meta executive in charge of Threads, said he is hoping this and other features can be added in the next few months.

In the Q&A I did with my colleague after the launch, I said the app was still so new that it was kind of hard to get a sense of it and what it represented, or even how it worked. But I noted that it seemed to be part Twitter and part Instagram, and that those two things “are in conflict with each other in some pretty fundamental ways.” For the first little while, Threads seemed to be populated primarily by brands and Instagram-style “influencers,” who were presumably seeded into the network, or promoted by the algorithm, as a way of jump-starting the timeline for new users. That wasn’t what I was interested in, so once I had tried to duplicate as much of my former Twitter network as possible, I spent very little time there. But over the next few months, I noticed more journalists showing up on Threads, and in much the same way as Newton, I also noticed a particular jump in both activity and followers once Hamas attacked Israel.

Prior to the Israel-Hamas conflict, the utility of Threads— and, in particular, its appeal for journalists and news junkies—was the subject of much debate, especially after Mosseri said in a discussion on July 7 with Alex Heath of The Verge, that Threads would not “do anything to encourage” the sharing of news on the network, because the negativity and additional scrutiny that come with hard news aren’t worth the “incremental engagement or revenue.” Mosseri added that there were more than enough communities to appeal to—including sports, music, fashion, and entertainment—without having to make it all about news. He later clarified that Threads was not going to down-rank news in the algorithm, but wouldn’t actively promote it the way Facebook did in the past. Mosseri said that the company was “too quick to promise too much to the industry on Facebook in the early 2010s, and it would be a mistake to repeat that.”

Not surprisingly, this seemed to irritate a number of journalists on the network. As Newton put it, in order to create a network where the world’s most influential journalists gather to post and discuss their news, “all you have to do is say that news is not a priority for you.” In another tongue-in-cheek comment, Yair Rosenberg of The Atlantic said that if Threads wanted to provide a service to journalists, it should allow posts to be embedded into stories on other sites, so that reporters could “sit on their couch and write entire articles about a handful of posts as though they represent something significant.” In any case, despite Mosseri’s stated lack of interest in news, not to mention the lack of X-style features such as trending topics, I found—as CNN’s Kaczynski did—that Threads still managed to become a useful news source, and certainly more useful than the questionable news environment on X.

In our Q&A, Allsop raised another issue that many critics of Threads have also mentioned, when he said that found it “somewhat astonishing” that many people who had argued that Facebook and Zuckerberg were evil seemed ready to leap with both feet into a new Facebook product “without a second thought.” Jason Koebler of 404 Media (formed by a number of journalists from Motherboard after that site was shut down) wrote that it was “weird to watch” some journalists who were aware of Facebook’s history with disinformation and complicity in a genocide in Myanmar adopt Threads because Zuckerberg is “a little less awful than Elon Musk.” Despite this, however, Koebler said he would continue to use Threads because he is a “pragmatic person who wants to connect with readers wherever they are” and also his livelihood relies on it.

Taylor Lorenz, a journalist at the Washington Post who writes about online communities and networks, raised another potential issue with Threads in an article in September: the fact that the app currently blocks posts and searches for terms such as COVID and Long COVID, a decision that Lorenz said “endangers people’s lives,” cuts vulnerable people off from access to crucial information, and prevents journalists and experts from holding the government and political leaders to account. The Post reported that a number of other terms such as ‘sex,’ ‘porn,’ ‘coronavirus,’ and ‘vaccines” are also blocked. Threads told the Post in a statement that search doesn’t provide results for words that might show “potentially sensitive content,” and in October, Mosseri said on Threads that the blocking is temporary, and that the company hopes to remove it, but is getting “pulled in a lot of different directions at once right now.”

In my Q&A, Allsop asked what Threads—along with the decline of X and splintering of audiences into multiple apps—might mean for journalism, and I said that I thought the main thing it means is that a journalist’s job is now even harder than it has been in the past. It means using multiple different platforms, in order to reach everyone who used to be on Twitter, or risk missing some portion of the audience and/or sources we have grown accustomed to, with the resulting decline in engagement or readership for our news. That in turn could make the economic challenges many journalists and news organizations face even more difficult. As much as Twitter helped journalists find sources, it was also a great distributor of our work—when it was working properly.

If Threads does continue growing to the point where it takes on some of the “global town square” function that Twitter used to enjoy (even if that was always somewhat overstated), will that be enough of a positive return for us as journalists to overlook Meta’s background in disinformation, genocide, privacy invasions, and other unpleasant events? Is it better to hand over our personal data and conversations with sources and audiences to a more friendly billionaire, or is that just a Faustian bargain in different garb? As Warzel noted at The Atlantic, anyone using these social networks has to realize they are “at the pleasure of internet boy-kings. These are not our spaces.”

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