Meta, the company we know best as Facebook, chose a smart moment to launch Threads, its Twitter rival.
Last week, Twitter was offline to many users for hours.
Twitter has been unstable for months. Remember, the owner Elon Musk sacked 80 per cent of the workforce including the people who keep the background technology ticking over. And he hasn’t been paying the cloud computing companies AWS and Google that host Twitter services.
It’s hard to get to the bottom of the latest outage. Knowing what goes on inside Twitter has become harder. There are no communications or public relations staff. If a journalist asks a question, the answer is a poo emoji.
In the absence of hard facts, we can look from outside see possible explainations. It's possible the cloud companies cut access to parts of Twitter. Or as Brandon Vigliarolo reports at The Register:
A number of people claim to have found evidence that, since blocking Twitter access to anyone not signed in, Twitter's front end appears to be DDoS'ing its back-end.
Twitter says the issue was that a large number of non-paying companies were scraping data from the site. This does happen. Among other things AI software companies collect tweets to feed their machine learning.
Companies that previously had access to Twitter APIs may have used scraping – in effect pulling data from browser screens – as an alternative way of capturing data.
Twitter’s response was to limit the number of tweets a non-paying customer could view to 600 a day. This made the site unusable for the most active users. Of course, these are the people who create the content that people come to see.
Limiting views, meant limiting the amount of advertising a user gets to see, which means Twitter revenues dropped. The company was struggling in this department before last weekend. This won’t make it any better.
Twitter has now dropped that limit.
Twitter’s existing rivals report seeing large jumps in sign-ups as users bailed out of the broken social media site and looked elsewhere to get their dopamine fix.
We need to keep this in perspective. Twitter has, or had, about 250 million users. The existing rivals have grown fast, but collectively amount to less than 10 per cent of Twitter’s audience.
Mastodon may be the largest with around 14 to 15 million users. It is maybe five per cent the size of Twitter. Add in all the others and they still wouldn't amount to as much as 10 per cent of Twitter.
Which is where Threads enters the picture.
Facebook has around 3 billion active users. Instagram has around 2 billion. There will be a lot of overlap.
Meta is launching Threads as an Instagram product. That helps put distance between it and Facebook’d toxic reputation. Threads looks a lot like Twitter.
If Meta can get 10 per cent of its existing users to the new service it will be bigger Twitter. It’s likely a number of Twitter users will switch loyalty.
That’s a big if and it won’t happen overnight. It may not happen at all. But Threads represents a huge and direct threat to Twitter.
Can Meta's Threads work?
Meta promises a Twitter that is stable and isn’t subject to Elon Musk’s latest brainwave. That will draw in an audience.
In recent months Twitter has worked hard at alienating its users. All the efforts to get people to pay for something that used to be free do not appear to be successful, but it has set up resentment with people who may have used Twitter for years.
Moreover, Meta plans a degree of moderation to keep users safe. It won’t allow hate speech. Twitter has thrown any semblance of moderation or user safety out of the window.
It's worth pointing out that Meta's track record here is not great. Yet a semblence of moderation and protection is better than nothing.
Choosing Threads depends on your views about Facebook privacy. The early signs are that moving to Threads means giving Meta access to vast amounts of your personal data and letting the company track most things you do online.
It will allow Facebook to crank up its surveillance capitalism operation.
Of course Twitter does this, but not as much, not as efficiently and it doesn't have the ability to cross reference that data with Facebook or Instagram.
The entry for Threads in the Apple App Store warns it will collect data about your health, your finances, your browsing history, anything you buy online, your location and so on. That’s more than Twitter.
In comparison, Mastodon, another alternative, collects none of this information.
Meta needs a win
Meta needs a big win because its last big project, the metaverse, has been an expensive and embarrassing flop.
Remember, Facebook changed its name to Meta to reflect its new business direction. The company spent close to $15 billion last year on the metaverse. Estimates say the company poured in at least $25 billion over two years.
In recent months Meta has stopped pitching the metaverse to advertisers.
Last month Apple launched its Vision Pro, virtual reality headset. It’s expensive and won’t be available until next year. And yet the announcement was enough to make Meta look pathetic.
One US news report said:
"Apple’s New Headset Makes Meta Look Like augmented reality’s BlackBerry”.
Virtual reality business
Meta was chasing the business market. Last year Air New Zealand tested the metaverse. It had interesting ideas about how it could use the technology, but was tentative about committing to a metaverse future.
Recent research found that companies testing the metaverse found their employees don’t like using the technology. If workers are not forced to use the technology, they choose not to. If they are forced to use it, they search for other jobs.
A report this week from Gartner says "Businesses are not rushing to adopt the metaverse, according to analyst firm Gartner – because it’s just not very good or useful.”
Ironically, this is the same Gartner that last year said we’ll all be working in the metaverse before much longer.