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Elon Musk's controversial reign at Twitter, renamed X after his takeover, has been well documented – and yet, the brand survives. Here, we take a look at why competitors like Threads are struggling to match its success.

X has two fundamental advantages that maintain its position as the incumbent king of its corner of the social media jungle. Firstly, it delivers a valuable service that users can't find anywhere else. It's where you go to find out what happened seconds ago on the other side of the world. It's a live news feed, harnessing the views of a community as diverse as Barack Obama and Mrs Smith from Dagenham.

Secondly, it demonstrates the power of networks. Any successful social media platform needs a large, active community to generate content and engagement. Like the best parties, once it is able to attract enough users, it becomes an irresistible magnet with easy subsequent growth.

The first platform to achieve such scale often then becomes an incumbent that is hard to dislodge. Many have tried to oust X from its top spot, most notably and recently Threads, but incumbency advantage is a strong hand.

The social media dilemma 

What did Threads do wrong, or what should it have done to guarantee success? It had the makings of a solid rival to X, particularly at a time when many Twitter users were feeling alienated and the site was losing advertising revenue. Threads had the opportunity to exploit Meta’s user base and related data. It had the funds to develop an effective competitive platform.

Yet Threads has been failing miserably and fast, going from tens of millions of users in the first week to a paltry eight million users within a month. Of course, externally validated user figures are at best an approximation – what counts is time on the platform and engagement, not how many Instagram users have a Threads icon on their account (these were added by default and don't necessarily reflect engagement). 

Musk has behaved like an engineer, experimenting wildly with staff, features, and anything else he can get his hands on

Mark Zuckerberg saw an opportunity to launch Threads as an antidote to the perceived toxicity of X, promoting it as a positive and creative space that would foster community. Brands were encouraged to adopt a personable, casual, relatable tone in their posts, making them fun and human. It's a sad indictment of human nature that people seemingly don't want that.

Many early users of Threads described the experience as stilted and boring. The fact is that the often controversial environment of X keeps users engaged, ultimately adding to the platform’s bottom line. Therein lies a social dilemma – how do we, as a society, create a business model that provides all the benefits of social media, with none of the toxicity, addiction, depression and disinformation. 

Strategic mistakes

Threads also failed when it came to implementing the features that made Twitter so successful in the first place. There were no hashtags allowing users to follow topics, it launched in the US before sorting out European GDPR compliance (thereby reducing its potential user base), and users were unable to direct message one another. It also failed to scale quickly enough (entering a platform market is a sprint not a marathon!), or to create a limited window for users to switch from X to Threads – paradoxically, the longer the door remains open for individuals to switch, the less likely they are to do so and the greater the incumbency advantage.

So despite Musk’s seemingly chaotic handling of Twitter, it has survived, and the users it has lost were probably marginal users anyway, rather than those who read and post to X intensively. Musk has behaved like an engineer, experimenting wildly with staff, features, and anything else he can get his hands on. There is a chance he will find a change that improves the experience of users, or improves his bottom line. In the meantime, the chaos doesn't seem to have damaged X that much. 

Many early users of Threads described the experience as stilted and boring

Looking at other social media platforms, there are few successful challenges against an incumbent market leader. Perhaps the best example is Facebook's annihilation of MySpace. Since then, Facebook has tried many times, with Lasso (a TikTok challenger), Hobbi (a Pinterest challenger) and now Threads (an X challenger), and never once matched its MySpace story.

And so we get to the nub of it. The blend of a high value product and the network effect of scale provide a giant wall of obstacles for a competitor like Threads to climb before it can successfully topple X off its social media perch. So, can it be done? One thing is for sure: it will require more than Zuckerberg's current strategy to counter the impact of X's incumbency advantage.

Main image: DrAfter123 / DigitalVision Vectors via Getty Images.

Andre Veiga

About Andre Veiga

Assistant Professor of Economics
Dr Andre Veiga joined Imperial College Business School as an Assistant Professor of Economics in 2017. His research interests are in theoretical and empirical industrial organisation, especially insurance, credit and healthcare markets.

His research has appeared in journals including the American Economic Review, the Journal of Economy Theory and the RAND Journal of Economics.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile

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