Meta is taking on Twitter with a new app. Instagram today announced the anticipated launch of its text-based social networking app, Threads, which allows Instagram users to authenticate with their existing credentials in order to post short updates, including text up to 500 characters, links, photos and videos up to 5 minutes in length.
At launch, Threads is available on iOS and Android in 100 countries, though not in the EU, reportedly due to concerns around adhering to local data privacy regulations. Users can log in with their Instagram credentials, where their username and verification status will carry over. However, Threads profiles can be customized independently as well.
The app’s existence was first scooped by MoneyControl this March and later confirmed by Platformer. In June, Meta previewed the app to employees during a company-wide meeting. Further leaks offered more details about the app’s target market of high-profile celebrities, influencers and artists, and its planned feature set.
While the Jack Dorsey-backed Twitter rival Bluesky has been growing in popularity in recent months, leveraging its own decentralized protocol, the AT Protocol, Instagram’s new app will soon offer support for ActivityPub – the same social networking protocol used by open source Twitter rival Mastodon, along with other federated apps.
Once that takes effect, Threads will be able to broaden its reach, as Mastodon’s ecosystem engages 1.7 million active users. But we aren’t sure when exactly Threads will deliver on this feature.
“We’re committed to building support for ActivityPub, the protocol behind Mastodon, into this app. We weren’t able to finish it for launch given a number of complications that come along with a decentralized network, but it’s coming,” Instagram head Adam Mosseri said before launch. “If you’re wondering why this matters, here’s a reason: you may one day end up leaving Threads, or, hopefully not, end up de-platformed. If that ever happens, you should be able to take your audience with you to another server. Being open can enable that.”
However, the choice also puts Threads in competition with other Mastodon clients, including indie apps like Ivory and the Mozilla-funded Mammoth. Flipboard, Medium, and WordPress.com owner Automattic have invested in the Mastodon ecosystem as well, amid the Twitter exodus. But Meta’s entry into the open decentralized social web has raised concerns that it’s planning to enact an “embrace, extend and extinguish” strategy designed to allow it to dominate in this emerging market, similar to how Google took hold of web-based email.
‘Instagram for your thoughts’
We have yet to see whether Threads will catch on, though it’s certainly a great time for Meta to dip its toes into microblogging. It’s worth noting, however, that Meta doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to building successful standalone apps.
Over the years, the company has shut down numerous standalone apps, including Hello, Moves, Paper, Poke, Camera, Home, Slingshot, Rooms, Riff, Bolt, Lifestage, Groups, Stickered, Moments, Notify, Bonfire, Lasso, Novi and others, including Boomerang, Hyperlapse, Direct, IGTV, and Threads from Instagram, and virtually all its experiments from it internal incubator, NPE Team, like BARS, E.gg, Forecast, Collab, Kit, Hobbi, Tuned and more.
To access Threads, users will first need to authenticate using their current Instagram login credentials. The app will then populate with their existing account details, like name, username, photo, and followers. Verification will also roll over to the new app.
This integration gives Instagram’s new app a jump start in terms of sign-ups – which the company alluded to in earlier leaked marketing materials, where it noted that with “one tap, anyone can follow the accounts they follow on Instagram.”
Beyond the immediate access to your network, another benefit of the app’s Instagram integration is that it will carry over users’ block lists from Instagram. Plus, it operates under the same Community Guidelines as Instagram, making it easier to understand what’s permitted and what’s not. Users will also be able to toggle what audiences they want to be able to reply to each of their posts.
Instagram has been experimenting with other ways for users to connect outside of sharing photos and videos to Reels, Stories and Feeds, including with the launch of “broadcast channels” in February 2023, which offered creators a way to more directly connect with followers by posting text, images, polls, reactions, GIFs and more in messages in users’ Instagram inboxes. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has since been using the feature to send out product news.
Ahead of the new app’s release, several developers and reverse engineers had been digging into Instagram’s code to discover how it would work, including leaker Alessandro Paluzzi. He found that the app would support 500 characters – less than Twitter’s now 10,000 for paid subscribers, though more than its 280 characters for non-paid users. At one point, he also discovered Meta was calling the app “an Instagram for your thoughts.”
Another source, social media consultant Matt Navarra, had reported in mid-May that Meta was seeking out early adopters to try a pre-release version app with a focus on high-profile influencers and celebrities, like actors, producers, writers, directors, showrunners, athletes and comedians.
Today’s launch is not the first time Instagram has experimented with text-based updates for social sharing. The company last December introduced Notes, a way to leave short, 60-character text posts for friends to see just above their Instagram DM inbox. The feature was updated with support for music-sharing in June. Not to mention that Instagram once launched a separate app called Threads, which was kind of like Snapchat. It no longer exists.
Privacy challenges on Threads
When Threads appeared on the App Store for pre-order a few days before launch, some users noticed that the app collects a lot of user data. According to Apple’s listing, the Threads iOS app may collect data related to health, finances, purchases, contacts, usage data, browsing history and other sensitive info.
Unfortunately, this data collection isn’t really different from other major social platforms like TikTok and Twitter, or Meta’s own Instagram and Facebook. But with so many apps competing to become the “next Twitter” (if such a thing is even possible), users have more agency to choose a platform that has less dubious privacy practices. Still, Threads has a leg up, since users’ Instagram networks will be built-in.
With ongoing privacy concerns among Meta’s family of apps, Threads will not be launching in the EU — at least not for now. The Guardian‘s sources at Meta reportedly delayed the launch due to legal uncertainty around data use under the Digital Markets Act, which passed in March. Meta has reason to be wary of this changing EU legislation; in May, the company was fined around $1.3 billion for exporting European Union user data to the U.S. for processing.
For now, EU users have one less Twitter alternative to choose from. As for those who have access to Threads from the get go, users now get to decide if they want Meta’s family of apps to take up an even greater slice of their attention.