EXCLUSIVE | META India warned Zuckerberg Threads would fail weeks before launch, he ignored it

Even after a year, Threads is far from the 'Twitter killer' it set out to be. A Meta insider reveals the India team had warned the company CEO about the shortcomings.
The Threads app, operated by Meta Platforms Inc., on a smartphone, arranged in Madrid, Spain.
The Threads app, operated by Meta Platforms Inc., on a smartphone, arranged in Madrid, Spain.(File Photo | AP)

As Meta’s Threads marks its first anniversary on July 6, one thing is clear: the social media platform is far from the 'Twitter killer' it set out to be. Despite amassing 175 million monthly active users, Threads cannot yet boast the same vibrancy as the popular micro-blogging platform, now called X. Nowhere is this more profound than in India, one of the biggest markets for social media platforms.

The Meta India team had feared this. In fact, in the lead-up to the launch last year, on July 6, 2023, they had expressed their apprehensions to the Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the Threads' core team, The New Indian Express has learnt. They were not heeded.

'Poorly executed'

"We were very unhappy with the product -- its viability, the lacklustreness of its functions, and its hurried, overnight launch," said a Meta India insider who was part of the Threads team. "That said, it was a smart business move. The plan was to capitalise on the unrest at Twitter after Elon Musk's takeover and the growing resentment towards some of his proposals, such as the introduction of subscriptions."

Indeed. The months prior saw Musk, the new CEO of Twitter, fire most of the employees, rename the platform X, restore previously banned accounts, introduce fees and firewalls, and overhaul the algorithm and content moderation policies. It was a time of much upheaval at Twitter and Zuckerberg hoped to ride this wave.

"A smart business move, no doubt, but poorly executed," the source added.

Though the India team had warned their counterparts in the US, Zuckerberg's instructions were to press on. In addition to the anti-Elon Musk sentiments, the Facebook creator was also likely influenced by his past successes in the sub-continent.

A testing ground

India has always been a testing ground for new digital products.

Meta has designed and rolled out several products here before making it available to other countries. Facebook Lite (2015), WhatsApp Pay (2020) and Instagram Reels (2020) are some examples.

"Of them, the launch of Instagram Reels is noteworthy as it too was deployed in haste, just weeks after the Indian government banned TikTok. It was a big hit, and the subsequent campaign we ran, Made on Reels, helped draw influencers and brands to the platform in droves. It turned Instagram into the company's primary breadwinner," the Meta source said.

The Threads app, operated by Meta Platforms Inc., on a smartphone, arranged in Madrid, Spain.
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Indeed, the Made on Reels campaign remains one of the biggest that Meta has ever done, rivalled perhaps only by the hoopla around the launch of Threads.

"We envisioned a similar success for Threads, but the product we had was simply an upgraded version of Orkut. I deleted the application from my phone after just one week," the source added.

A flash in the pan

The same turned out to be the case for a majority of the 100 million who downloaded the application in the first week of its launch, only to delete it later. Data from SimilarWeb, a web traffic analytics firm, indicates that the number of Threads users plummeted by 50% within just 24 hours of its launch, and fell to merely 10% of the initial user base by the end of the month, highlighting the fleeting curiosity and subsequent disinterest among users.

Most of Threads’ current 175 million monthly active users are made up of flyby traffic from Meta's other applications. No scroll on Instagram is without reminders of Threads' existence.

"A desperate move," said Baani Grewal, a senior PR professional who downloaded the application out of curiosity last July, but can't seem to get rid of it now as any attempts to delete it also impairs Instagram.

"But I was disenchanted very quickly. The content meted out to users is not very deviant from other Meta-led platforms," she said.

Same algorithm, similar facade

Even at the time of launch, there were rumours among the tech community that despite its Twitter-like facade, what actually runs Threads is the same algorithm as Instagram. Baani further added, "There were not enough elements to distinguish it."

However, similarity to an existing platform is not a bad thing. In fact, familiarity with usage can sometimes prove advantageous for a fledgling digital product, said Radha Radhakrishnan, the former vice president (marketing and communications) of Global Alliance for Mass Entrepreneurship.

"But you have to chip away at it to gain an edge. Offer more value than the current major platform," Radha said. However, taking into cognisance that this is indeed the era of snackable content, she added, "I'm not certain if Threads play the game just yet. They are in the arena. That’s for sure. But all eyes (and thumbs) are on the main players still."

Veteran PR professional and digital maven Dilip Cherian too feels the same. "For Threads to be successful, it needs a different character. It can’t be an imitation of something that already exists and is popular. It should be X++, but right now, it is X-."

Social media saturation

This was expected, said Srishty Chawla, the co-founder and CEO of One Source, an integrated marketing firm.

"I think people got on to Threads for no other purpose but to avoid feeling the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and to see what all the hype was about. And when the shine wore off, the new toy was abandoned and we all returned to the comfort of our good ol' X," she said.

Srishty also points out that our social media sphere has reached a saturation point.

"Personally, I feel that there are enough established social media platforms for everyone today. We have no particular 'need' for another one. So for me, Threads just exists. It doesn’t serve a purpose."

The Threads app, operated by Meta Platforms Inc., on a smartphone, arranged in Madrid, Spain.
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The same is the case for Sumit Raj, who heads the digital vertical at Maitri Advertising. "Threads didn't bring anything new to the table. No problem-solving or added value compared to what was already out there," he said.

He further added, "Around 65% of Twitter users are men, unlike the female-dominated scenes on Facebook or Instagram. Convincing these specific users, who've already formed a habit, to switch to a new platform is a real challenge."

Meta legacy

What likely helped Threads win the users it did, according to Sumit, is the fact that it hails from the Meta family. This is also precisely why many, including pundits, are unwilling to dismiss the platform just yet.

"It's only natural for Meta to throw their weight on Threads. What is after all one year in the life of a digital product? Remember, LinkedIn has been in operation for over two decades. However, it was only a few years ago that it became the go-to platform that it is today," Radha said.

Baani too remembers a time when Twitter was not popular.

"It was not until the 2014 Lok Sabha elections that Twitter became widely accepted. Until then, not many people were aware of the platform’s potential," she said.

However, she is quick to add that Threads, according to her, is not a competitor to Twitter yet. "For that to happen, either the Meta-helmed Threads must do something radically unique, or Twitter should do something horribly wrong."

Dilip does not expect either of these to happen.

However, the recent updates to Threads and policy changes at Meta’s end, such as the deprioritisation of political advertisements, the labelling of AI-generated content, enhanced fact-checking measures and user controls, show promise. One thing is clear: Zuckerberg is still keen to see Threads become the next big thing.

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