Mark Zuckerberg goes in for the kill as Elon Musk’s Twitter bleeds

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At a gathering of Meta staff last week, Chris Cox, one of Mark Zuckerberg’s most trusted lieutenants, unveiled what he called “our response to Twitter”.

The product chief showed off what has internally been codenamed “Project 92″, or in some iterations “Barcelona”: a prototype app that the Facebook-developer hopes will finally kill its rival.

Mark Zuckerberg has a long-held fascination with Twitter, having once tried to buy the then-fledgling app in 2008 for $US500 million when it was just two years old.Credit: Bloomberg

The app is expected to be called Threads and screenshots suggest it will feature a continuous scroll of text like Twitter with buttons similar to the Like and Retweet functions, according to technology news site The Verge.

Zuckerberg’s company is already courting celebrities and influencers to test the app. Meta has been negotiating with TV host Oprah Winfrey and Tibetan religious leader the Dalai Lama to open accounts, hoping that high-profile early users can help tempt the masses to join.

“I know for a fact they’ve been talking to a British celebrity, and some US big name stars,” says Matt Navarra, a social media consultant.

A launch of the new app could come as soon as “the end of the month or beginning of next month, they have been onboarding people for a little while”, he claims.

Threads, which will be separate to Meta’s popular Instagram, is expected to feature a 500-character limit on its posts, staying true to the original ethos of Twitter even as the rival platform abandons shorter Tweets in favour of lengthy essays.

The whole design, Navarra says, “looks remarkably similar to Twitter”.

Users are likely to be able to transfer over account information from Instagram, including the ability to keep their handle and notify followers to join them.

It should hopefully make it an easier sell for people who have built up large followings on other platforms.

Elon Musk has had a rocky ride at Twitter since taking it over last year.Credit: Bloomberg

Zuckerberg is preparing to pounce as Twitter reels from its takeover by Elon Musk last year.

Since being acquired by Musk for $US44 billion ($64.3 billion) last October, Twitter has been bleeding advertising cash and seen some users quit outright.

Advertisers and users alike have been alarmed by Musk’s decision to reverse some bans on accounts blocked for hate speech. He has also stripped accounts of their “blue check marks” and made them pay for the status symbol, an affront to some.

Companies now fear their advertisements may appear alongside misinformation or hate speech. The New York Times reported that advertising spending on Twitter had plunged 59 per cent year-on-year, according to internal projections.

At the same time, Musk has struggled to convert Twitter users into paying subscribers under his new ‘Twitter Blue’ offering.

It leaves Twitter haemorrhaging cash and vulnerable to attack.

Zuckerberg, ever an opportunist, has spied an opening to subvert Facebook’s long-time rival. Work began on Meta’s new app in January, mere weeks after Musk finally took over Twitter.

“It’s a smart move for Zuck to take advantage of the Twitter unrest,” says Dan Ives, a technology analyst at Wedbush Securities.

The Facebook creator has a long-held fascination with Twitter, having once tried to buy the then-fledgling app in 2008 for $US500 million when it was just two years old.

Could Threads really unseat Twitter as the world’s town square?

So far, smaller rivals have failed to do too much damage. Apps such as Bluesky, backed by former Twitter boss Jack Dorsey, and Mastodon have enjoyed an uptick in users since Musk’s takeover but have failed to turn these bumps into real momentum.

However, Meta presents a much more credible threat. Advertisers are likely to be much more willing to bank their ad dollars with Zuckerberg than smaller rivals.

Despite historic concerns around safety on Facebook, in particular for younger users, “advertisers will be very open to a new offering from Meta,” says Brian Wieser, an independent advertising analyst who writes the Madison and Wall newsletter.

“Meta doesn’t have a great track record of launching new apps for younger audiences.Most of them failed very quickly and never went anywhere.”

He says: “While I think that brand safety and suitability concerns are generally a concern with all social media… there’s nothing keeping most advertisers away from Meta in the same way as Elon Musk’s presence at Twitter is doing so there.”

Twitter has remained popular with politicians, journalists, celebrities and pundits. However, Zuckerberg’s apps Facebook and Instagram have always enjoyed far greater scale.

Musk said in November that Twitter usage was at an “an all time high”, with around 250 million users since his takeover. Yet this pales in comparison to the more than 2 billion people who use Instagram alone. Zuckerberg would only need to convince a fraction of his user base to create an account to pose a threat to Twitter.

Even with the negative sentiment around its Facebook app, Instagram has maintained a “positive halo effect” around Meta, according to Navarra. Its brand has helped convince advertisers to say despite a string of negative headlines about its older sibling.

Meta has been negotiating with TV host Oprah Winfrey and the Dalai Lama to open accounts, hoping that high-profile early users can help tempt the masses to join.Credit: AP

Meta’s rival app could help win over liberal celebrities and worried brands that have grown tired of Musk’s antics.

According to The Verge, Cox, Meta’s chief product officer, told staff: “We’ve been hearing from creators and public figures who are interested in having a platform that is sanely run.”

Zuckerberg could do with a win: Meta faces growing unrest among its investors about its expensive push into the “metaverse”. The company has been spending more than $US1 billion each month trying to hook users on Zuckerberg’s vision of a futuristic, immersive version of the internet backed up by virtual reality.

However, Meta’s track record in launching its own apps should give pause for thought. Aside from Facebook, Zuckerberg’s crowning creation, the company has struggled to get original ideas off the ground and instead grown through canny acquisitions – chiefly Instagram and WhatsApp.

In recent years, Meta has killed off: Direct, a messaging app based on Instagram; Groups, which was spun out of Facebook but only attracted 15 million downloads; and Neighbourhoods, an app for local communities.

“Meta doesn’t have a great track record of launching new apps for younger audiences,” Navarra says. “Most of them failed very quickly and never went anywhere.”

It is “better at copy and pasting successful features than launching new ones themselves”, he adds. Zuckerberg notably adapted the popular “Stories” format – short videos that are pinned to a users’ profile – from rival Snapchat for Instagram in 2016, stunting the rival app’s popularity.

The company also redesigned Instagram to look more like fast-growing rival TikTok, though reversed some changes after a backlash from users.

Perhaps as a hedge against the possibility of Threads falling short, Zuckerberg has been exploring features to help WhatsApp attract exiles from Twitter.

The company launched Channels, a way for brands or organisations to broadcast messages to large groups of followers. They can send messages, pictures, audio or video.

Twitter has been haemorrhaging cash as advertising dollars dwindle. Credit: Bloomberg

Sports teams such as Manchester City and Barcelona have signed up, as have government groups. With 2 billion users, it could prove a more efficient way to reach people directly, rather than hoping they will spot a Tweet.

Whether it is WhatsApp or Threads, Zuckerberg’s fight with Musk is unlikely to be straightforward. Ives says the rivals will face a “costly battle for market share as advertising growth remains under pressure”.

Musk is unphased. He Tweeted in reply to reports of Meta’s plans “zuck my tongue” – seemingly a reference to a controversial incident in which the Dalai Lama told a child to “suck my tongue”.

Linda Yaccarino, Twitter’s newly appointed chief executive who has been brought in to soothe advertiser concerns, defiantly responded: “Game on!”

A Meta spokesman declined to comment.

Telegraph, London

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