Threads is Meta’s biggest viral hit since the OG Facebook app – but how exactly did it come about? 

Last summer, the Meta team discussed Twitter-like features they could add to existing apps, including Instagram. Zuckerberg, however, had a different idea: “What if we went bigger?” Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri reported to the Washington Post that the team felt “oh God, we’ve got to figure this out, because [Zuckerberg is] very excited about this […] Sometimes you can tell when he kind of gets his teeth into something.” 

Just seven months later, Meta unveiled Threads, a project that has shocked even its creators with its instant success. Threads drew more than 100 million users in its first five days — making it, by some estimations, the most successful social media app launch of all time.

That Threads was created by such a small group in such a short amount of time has become something of a marvel inside Meta. Many see its quick rise as a reminder that well-executed product launches might not need all the bureaucratic trappings that a company with some 66,000 employees had grown accustomed to.

Speaking to investors this week after Meta reported strong earnings, Zuckerberg held up Threads as vindication of his “year of efficiency,” in which he sheared tens of thousands of jobs in a bid for more agile teams that would ship products quickly.

Yet Threads’ long-term success is not assured. Weeks after its July 5 launch, analytics firms estimated that the app’s usage dropped by more than half from its early peak. And Meta has a long history of copycat products or features that have failed to gain traction (along with a few, like Instagram Stories, that have thrived).

Now that Threads’ daily users have plummeted, the team behind it faces a new test: turning a bare-bones Twitter clone into a thriving social network with its own identity and staying power.

Meta has long viewed Twitter as a competitor: Zuckerberg reportedly tried to buy the platform in 2008 for $500 million. But while Twitter captured the cultural and political zeitgeist, its business — with 237.8 million daily users and $5 billion in annual revenue — remained a fraction of Zuckerberg’s empire, and never posed a serious threat.

But once Musk took over Twitter, embarking on what Mosseri called “high-risk” decisions like limiting the reach of posts for users who hadn’t paid for verification, company executives inside Meta pounced with Zuckerberg wanting Threads up and running by January, less than two months after greenlighting it. Mosseri, however, who oversaw the work along with longtime product leader Connor Hayes, tempered the CEO’s expectations, said they first needed to assemble the right team.

The process was a manifestation of what has been a divisive era at Meta, as it shed more than 20,000 workers in layoffs designed to return the business to what Zuckerberg has called “a more optimal ratio of engineers to other roles.”

To keep things moving, the Threads team punted thorny decisions and eschewed difficult features, including private messages and the ability to search for content or view the feeds of people you don’t follow. The company also opted not to launch in the European Union, where regulators are preparing to enforce new rules next year requiring tech companies to provide more information to regulators about their algorithms.

The rapid release of Threads did not come without its warts or hurdles. Twitter attorney Alex Spiro earlier this month accused Meta of poaching Twitter employees to help create its “copycat” app so rapidly. But no one on the Threads engineering team is a former Twitter employee, according to Meta spokesman Andy Stone.

Meta hopes Threads can steer clear of the political quagmires that have made Twitter and other social media platforms so controversial. Mosseri stirred debate earlier this month when he said Threads would not actively “encourage” politics and “hard news,” because the extra engagement is not worth the scrutiny.

Meta’s president of global affairs Nick Clegg later elaborated in an interview that the company would likely not add specific news-focused product features, but would give more users control over what they see. Zuckerberg, for his part, has proudly welcomed some of his favourite mixed martial arts athletes to the platform.

But if Threads takes off, the company might find it impossible to avoid the sort of politically charged decisions that have made operating Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp so challenging.

Some of Threads’ most influential early adopters were journalists and media organisations sharing the kind of breaking news that generates partisan reactions. Politicians such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and several Republican presidential hopefuls, including Mike Pence, were also quick to join the platform.

When Musk announced in early July that Twitter would temporarily limit the number of tweets users can read per day to combat an influx of spam and bots, Meta took notice. Whereas new apps often face launch delays as the team works out kinks, Mosseri and company decided to move up Threads’ launch date by about a week. 

After realising the app would drop into some international app stores before it was live, Meta pivoted again, shaving another few hours off its launch. That night, a “core group” worked together at Meta headquarters while Mosseri and other team members chatted on an internal messaging forum, watching the sign-ups pour in. 

Upon launch, Meta had a viral hit on its hands, for the first time in years and the first one built internally since the original Facebook app.

By the end of last week, third-party analytics services began reporting steep drops in Threads’ engagement. On Google’s Android platform, it was down from a high of 49 million daily users on July 7 — nearly half that of Twitter — to just 12.6 million on July 23, according to estimates from Similarweb.

Meanwhile, the internal excitement about Threads has validated advice Mosseri said he received from Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom soon after Mosseri replaced him in 2018: Often, the best way to boost morale — even in a company battered by missteps and layoffs — is simply to deliver functional products.

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