FOMO Has Never Been Worse on the Internet

Earlier this year, ChatGPT became the fastest-growing consumer app of all time, reaching 100 million active users in what seemed like an astonishingly brisk two months. Now, just six months later, that record has been usurped: Threads got there in less than a week. According to data from Sensor Tower, a market-intelligence firm, Meta’s Twitter clone had the best launch day of any app in the past decade.

The internet is moving faster than ever before. Twitter and Facebook each took more than four years to reach the 100-million-users milestone; Instagram took just over two. TikTok did it in nine months. Now the record has been broken twice in 2023 alone. The apps themselves have evolved—product managers have spent zillions of hours optimizing sign-up “flows” to get people through registration and actually using the things as quickly as possible, and Threads, with its connection to Instagram, benefits from these efforts more than most. But it is also the case that the web is in a new FOMO era. The job of testing the next big thing was once assigned to just the very online; now we all feel like we’re primed to sign up right away or risk being left behind. We all have the fear of missing out.

Of course, one can’t talk about Threads’ record-setting growth without adding a giant asterisk to the data. The app is built on the back of the defining social-media empire of our time. Threads is an Instagram product, and Instagram is owned by Meta—the company formerly known as Facebook. It leverages the social connections accumulated over almost two decades of Meta products. The term FOMO itself gained popularity alongside the rise of the social web. Facebook arguably helped invent it altogether by initially launching at exclusive colleges, then at high schools. It advanced the phenomenon as people learned to post photos of their friends, parties, and vacations on their profile, along with in-jokey status updates.

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Threads has leveraged every bit of that power. When I logged in to a dormant Instagram account for my dog, Rooster, a notification told me that a couple of his “friends” had posted on Threads for the first time. A Threads promo told Rooster to “claim your username” and “connect with the 15 people wanting to follow you.” If you decide to join, the app adds a little number to your Instagram profile, assigned in the order you arrived, creating a kind of social pressure to register as soon as possible. I’m in the first 50,000 sign-ups because I joined the exact minute it went live (for work, I promise). Now my badge makes me look like some kind of Threads hipster. Meta also made it easy to share Threads Instagram Stories with a bespoke design, the better to lure in Instagram users idly tapping through the day’s content. When you sign in to the app, Threads asks if you want to follow everyone you know from Instagram. Threads doesn’t display how many people you’re following on the front page of your profile, so you can grow your network without seeming embarrassingly overeager. (If this concern means nothing to you, congratulations on living a healthy and normal life.) Zuckerberg’s live-posting of Threads sign-ups—2 million, 5 million, 10 million, 30 million, 70 million, then 100—generated even more buzz.

Remember that F in FOMO: Many users may not be excited to be on Threads, exactly—it’s more that they’re afraid not to be. Early users get the best usernames and a shot at going viral while the platform is still growing. Followers in this new universe are up for grabs. But Threads’ quick growth doesn’t guarantee staying power. Size is a bit of a vanity metric; just because people sign up doesn’t mean they’ll come back. Engagement—how many times a person visited the site or app, how long they stayed for, and so on—arguably matters more for long-term success. Abraham Yousef and Seema Shah, analysts for Sensor Tower, told me that Threads engagement peaked on its first full day, July 6, and then dropped off. According to their data, both average time spent and the number of sessions per user were down nearly 60 percent on July 10. Yousef explained that although Threads usage data have been “volatile”—it is early days, after all—“even at its peak, [time spent on Threads] was still like 60 percent of time spent on Twitter and 85 percent of Instagram.”

Success on the social web can be ephemeral. The title of “social network to hit 100 million active users fastest” once belonged to a website that no longer exists: Google+ (which took one year and two months to reach it). Google+’s early story is not all that different from Threads’: a powerful tech company tried to launch in an adjacent market at a moment when a lot of people were fed up with an established power. Around launch time, the New York Times gadget blog described Google+ as “an all-out, brazen competitor to Facebook” with features explicitly made to address “frequent complaints” about Facebook. Google+ parceled out invites selectively, which made it seem cool. Because Google was powerful and had built popular products like Gmail, people rushed to claim their spot on it. But the product itself wasn’t impressive, and it didn’t go anywhere despite its scale.

Indulging in your FOMO doesn’t always pay off. It might persuade you to get out of bed and go to the party, but it doesn’t guarantee that the party’s going to be fun. A colleague likened waking up the morning after joining Threads to waking up with a hangover: Threads didn’t magically fix all the problems with Twitter overnight, and by joining it, 100 million people had impulsively supported Meta despite the company’s questionable history on things such as user privacy and misinformation. They might end up regretting going to that party after all.

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