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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Threads Is Rolling Out on the Web. That Just Might Save It

Threads, the text-based social network that Meta recently launched as part of Instagram, is finally on the web. Earlier this week, Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg shared that Threads for the web would be “rolling out over the next few days.” That rollout has begun; some users already have access to the web version.

It’s the next phase for the new social app, which launched in early July as a bare-bones text-threading app. Similar to X, the company formerly known as Twitter, Threads allows people to post text updates, “heart” or like others’ posts, repost them, and reply in a Thread.

The app initially swelled in users—due in no small part to the fact that people could instantly transfer their Instagram presence over to Threads—with 100 million people signing up within the first five days. Even Adam Mosseri, Instagram’s lead on the project, was shocked: “I’m not sure I can wrap my mind around that fact. It’s insane; I can’t make sense of it,” he wrote in a Thread.

But Threads was—and is—a work in progress. Threads will supposedly be compatible with ActivityPub, an open social networking protocol, but that hasn’t happened yet. The app also doesn’t currently support direct messages, a popular feature on X. And Threads is not available in the European Union, due to the regulatory climate there. Until now, it was only available on mobile, limiting its usefulness to researchers who mine social media websites for data, or elder millennials who hang out in web browsers all day at work (raises hand).

Threads’ arrival on the web, then, doesn’t make it a beacon of social media innovation. Rather, it makes it more broadly usable. Most users will still access it through mobile, if the way people currently access the internet is any indication. But the move to the web is the next step in Meta creating an application just sticky enough to kneecap X and draw attention away from Bluesky, Mastodon, Spoutible, Post, and any other newish social app.

It’s also a way to juice its users again. After that spectacular initial sign-up period in July, Threads usage dropped off precipitously. New data from market intelligence firm Sensor Tower suggests that daily active users are down more than 60 percent from its first-week average, though it’s now back on the upswing. Threads amassed 44 million daily active users during its launch peak, then saw usage drop to a low of 7 million DAUs in late July. As of mid-August, the app has seen increases of 11 million DAUs, Sensor Tower analysts say. However, time spent on the app per daily active user has also fallen, the firm says.

“I joined Threads within 48 hours of it opening up, like everybody else, but I haven’t really used it, and the reason is that I access most of my social media on my laptop,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a media scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an internet activist. “I’m reading, writing, and sharing articles. And I’m not necessarily typical, but I think there are a lot of people who are trying to counterbalance this moment of, ‘Twitter is falling apart—where’s the new conversation going to be?’” Cross-posting between multiple apps when most run on the web and one of them is mobile-only creates a barrier, however small, to regular usage.

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Zuckerman adds that mobile-only apps are infinitely more difficult for scholars to research, a point he made in a blog post shortly after Threads launched in July. Monitoring network traffic, determining whether a website is pinging different services, and looking into a website’s source code are all options on the web. “We can’t do that on mobile apps,” Zuckerman says.

Data journalist and engineer Surya Mattu has even suggested that apps should implement an “inspectability API,” allowing people to export data from apps and share it with researchers, journalists, and advocates. (Of course, just because a social network runs on the web doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an open data source. In April, Twitter shut off its free API and started charging developers exorbitant fees to access its tools and data.)

Meta did not respond to a request for comment on the Threads rollout or a request for comment on Sensor Tower’s user activity data.

Web Threads are unlikely to be a huge play for ads, although Meta is reportedly working on making Instagram’s branded content tools available to marketers. According to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s state of the industry report for 2023, mobile advertising last year comprised 73.5 percent of total internet ad revenues, up 2.2 percentage points from the year before—the largest increase in three years. Desktop advertising’s growth rate, on the other hand, has slowed over the past decade. And plenty of people use ad blockers on the web, Zuckerman points out. If or when Meta allows traditional ads to run on Threads, mobile will offer much more bang for the buck.

“Will Threads coming to the web make it a more exciting, dynamic place? I don’t know,” Zuckerman says. “But I’m going to have a better sense of that now that there will be a web interface to study.”

One of the appeals of Twitter, for those who spent (or spend) seemingly infinite amounts of time on it, was its simultaneous intimacy—the ability to have lots of small conversations with people in a community—and its potential to broadcast or have a tweet be picked up by a larger platform. Threads’ mobile-only status made it a much smaller room by comparison. Now Threads is a slightly larger room on Meta’s already vast mass of land.

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