Twitter has been ripe for disruption for years now. People love to complain about it or leave in protest of how terrible it’s become. There have been many opportunities for Twitter to be challenged by a decentralized social network that truly empowers users. And there have been quite a few attempts. But none have come close to rivaling Twitter.
Now, thanks to widespread frustration with the excessive power of Elon Musk, a Twitter rival has landed. And no, it’s not the brainchild of some crypto-native start-up. It comes via Meta, another company ruled by an excessively powerful billionaire. That didn’t stop Threads from hitting 100 million users in less than a week.
Emily Parker is CoinDesk's executive director of global content.
There’s a lesson here, if a painfully obvious one. When it comes to social media, or at least social media at scale, people ultimately care about network effects and ease of use. That’s pretty much it. Yes, it would be nice to have data privacy, higher quality conversations, protection of “free speech” (whatever that means exactly) and maybe greater ownership over your content. But those concerns have yet to prevail.
Before going any further, let’s be clear: Threads will not necessarily be a huge success. Sometimes platforms arrive with a bang only to fade into cultural irrelevance – remember Clubhouse? But again: Threads got 100 million users in five days, and that number could still grow. Rival upstarts simply have not gained that kind of traction. Mastodon claims to have around 2 million monthly active users. It’s hard to get exact numbers for the decentralized social media protocol Nostr, but an estimate based on Damus and Amethyst downloads is likely around 500,000 to 1 million, according to Damus. The invite-only Bluesky had some 50,000 users at the end of April, and since then got at least 58,000 new sign ups. These numbers aren’t bad, but these are the relatively successful rivals, not the ones you haven’t even heard about.
Threads’ early boom basically comes down to Threads’ integration with Instagram, which has over 2 billion monthly active users. In other words, people are already there. People have been saying for years that they yearn for smaller, more intimate platforms, but are often addicted to the potential of virality. I have some personal experience with this, as part of a team that tried to build one of those smaller, more intimate platforms. While the resulting product was far from perfect, I also saw firsthand how hard it is for a new player to compete with the sheer numbers of Twitter and Facebook.
Read more: David Z Morris - Threads Is Libra and Meta All Over Again
Threads has another key feature: If you are already an Instagram user, then onboarding is easy. You don’t need to establish a whole new identity, and the people you follow can be transferred from one platform to the next.
Threads’ early success has lessons not only for social media start-ups, but also for crypto as it pursues the often elusive goal of “mainstream adoption.” Because money, like social media, only really works if enough people use it.
So here are a few key lessons:
Sometimes you might have to play ball with bigger players, at least initially. In other words, go where people are. That’s why people get so excited about “institutional adoption” or the possibility of a Bitcoin ETF. Giving people a gateway to crypto through known, trusted brands with established customer bases can make sense at this point in time. That’s likely why Polygon struck a deal with Instagram itself, to give just one example. This is not a solution for every project, and can indeed take some of the fun and uniqueness out of crypto, but there is clearly a logic behind such strategic alliances.
Onboarding and ease of use matters. A lot. This seems almost too obvious to write but given that so many crypto products remain confusing and hard to use, it bears repeating. You can have a visionary product with a roadmap to remake society, but that may not matter if the user experience is terrible or people have to jump through hoops to create on account. It also means that, for better or worse, we probably need centralized crypto exchanges and governments (see: United States) to establish clearer regulatory frameworks for them. Yes, these exchanges might be less secure or philosophically pure than decentralized finance, but they probably offer a more familiar gateway for the more mainstream set.
This is not to say that data privacy isn’t critically important. Of course it is. Decentralization has its appeal as well. But these lofty goals are simply not enough. Without network effects or ease of use, they won’t catapult a product into the mainstream. That is the main lesson from Threads’ spectacular five days.