The Battle of the Social Titans: Threads vs X

The Battle of the Social Titans: Threads vs X

Twitter became X, and the Meta (Facebook) competitor, Threads

When Elon Musk bought Twitter for 44 billion in October 2022, we all knew things would never be the same. From the overhauling of Twitter’s verification system to mass layoffs, to giving voice to previously-banned far-right accounts it was clear that Twitter as we knew it was over. But in the chaos of the Musk’s owned Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, saw opportunity. And so just a month after the Twitter acquisition, Meta was already developing a Twitter competitor. 

By July 6th, 2023, when Meta launched ‘Threads’—a Twitter clone that is linked to users’ Instagram accounts, Twitter was facing so much backlash that people seemed desperate for an alternative. Threads, it seemed, was an overnight success. It attracted 30 million users just on the first day of its launch and currently has over 120 million users. As Threads was soaring towards the first 30 millions users, I tried to download it. I couldn’t. At first I thought that it was because Meta doesn’t care about Cyprus. Fortunately, I have a second Apple account thanks to my student years in the UK and so a few hours after the launch I was in. Once I had managed to download it, registering was super fast. Just tap, select the Instagram account and that’s it. I even started out with followers. The app was basic in comparison to Twitter but it didn’t really matter. 

What I initially missed was that just 2 days before, on July 4th 2023 Meta and six other Big Tech companies had identified themselves as meeting the thresholds to qualify as potential gatekeepers under the EU’s Digital Markets Act. According to the European Commission’s website: 

“The Digital Markets Act (DMA) establishes a set of clearly defined objective criteria to identify “gatekeepers”. Gatekeepers are large digital platforms providing so called core platform services, such as for example online search engines, app stores, messenger services. Gatekeepers will have to comply with the do’s (i.e. obligations) and don’ts (i.e. prohibitions) listed in the DMA.” 

The list of dos and don’ts is long but an important part of it is privacy. One of the don’ts for example is: “track end users outside of the gatekeepers' core platform service for the purpose of targeted advertising, without effective consent having been granted”.

The Threads app extensively tracks users, in fact in the app’s iOS listing it’s stated the app collects a range of personal data, including health and financial data, precise location, browsing history, contacts and search history. Meta uses these data for ad targeting but in the EU Meta is required to have a valid legal basis to process such personal data.

Meta initially didn’t provide any official reasons but eventually Instagram chief Adam Mosseri said that it’ll likely be ‘many months’ before the app is available in the EU. In a post on Instagram he said: “Unfortunately, for support in the EU, to make sure that we’re compliant with laws that are coming in 2024 it’s just gonna’ take a while. I wish it wasn’t - I’ve been living outside the US for a year now, and I think we need to be way less US-centric as a team, [and] I’ve been pushing for that in a really big way. But it just turns out that in order to make sure that we can verify all the things we need to do to be compliant, it’s just going to take many months, unfortunately.”

Eventually I lost access to Threads, as Meta started blocking access to EU IPs and even blocking users from EU trying to access the app via VPN. It’s unclear whether Threads will adapt to the EU market or it will ever launch in the region. What was to be expected though is that Elon Musk would react.  First he threatened to sue Meta over intellectual property infringement. After all, Meta hired a lot of the folks that Musk had fired to help build Threads. And then as August rolled in, Musk announced Twitter and its iconic blue bird would no longer be. Twitter was to become X. As usual over the last 10 months the process was a mess. He had to get a special permission to name the app X  on the iOS App Store and a distractingly bright and flashy X sign had to be taken down for the Twitter’s (sorry X’s) HQ by San Francisco authorities. As per typical Elon Musk’s style, it was also revealed that X was throttling traffic to websites that the social network's owner Elon Musk publicly dislikes like Threads, The New York Times, Bluesky and more.

August has not been kind to Threads either though. The number of active users has decreased by 80% since the app launched in July, the large companies that embraced the app in the early days are posting less and less and the new features announced don’t seem to be enough. A web version is apparently coming (announced on August 21st) and better search “within the next few weeks” as per Meta’s CEO Mark Zucherberg.

As the summer is coming to an end the Threads vs X battle is becoming even more interesting. Threads, unless Meta finds a way to comply with the EU regulations, cannot really replace X and X needs to get things straight before it’s too late. Meanwhile, we will keep being entertained by the Zuckerberg vs Musk upcoming cage fight (if it ever happens).