Mark Zuckerberg's Meta has launched its Twitter competitor, Threads, and Twitter owner Elon Musk is having an extremely normal one about it. Threads is top-to-bottom a Twitter copycat and is launching at a time when Twitter seems to be having a turbulent old time of it, thanks largely to Musk's fiddling ever since he took over. Now Musk's sending in the lawyers, and getting really quite petty about it.
Meta says over 30 million people have signed up to Threads (Twitter has an estimated 350 million users), and the pitch is a "friendlier" social media platform. I downloaded the app and, yeah, it is basically Twitter with a lot of people currently making jokes about not being on Twitter and discussing their favourite sodas. There are differences such as a larger character limit, and no trends or hashtags, but the look and feel are nigh-on identical.
So it's probably not surprising that Musk thinks there may be a legal angle here, with Semafore reporting that Twitter's chief lawyer Alex Spiro sent a strongly worded letter to Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday.
"Twitter intends to strictly enforce its intellectual property rights, and demands that Meta take immediate steps to stop using any Twitter trade secrets or other highly confidential information," harrumphs Spiro. The letter goes on to accuse Meta of hiring dozens of former Twitter staff who "had and continue to have access to Twitter’s trade secrets and other highly confidential information" and were then assigned to create "Meta’s copycat 'Threads' app [using] Twitter’s trade secrets and other intellectual property."
The employees are mentioned because Twitter has a big problem if it wants to seriously pursue this: US copyright law does not protect ideas. So copying Twitter is fine; but using Twitter code to do so would be a big no-no.
In response Meta spokesperson Andy Stone, on Threads natch, said "no one on the Threads engineering team is a former Twitter employee: that's just not a thing".
I mean, that's what he would say. The interesting aspect of this is that one of Musk's first acts after taking over Twitter was to absolutely gut the workforce, laying off many thousands. It's not beyond the realms of possibility some staff subsequently ended up at Meta, though whether Twitter actually has cause for concern here or is just firing scattershot hoping to land is unclear.
Elon Musk said in response to discussion of the legal letter that "competition is fine, cheating is not". He and Zuckerberg have been engaged in a war of words in recent weeks including a bizarre digression where they agreed to a cage match with each other, and following the launch of Threads Zuckerberg decided to poke the bear by tweeting for the first time in 11 years with… the Spider-Man pointing meme.
Musk wasn't having any of that and went on a tear, and I have to admit to finding the pettiness of this billionaire war somewhat amusing. Musk replied in mock-shock to users posting a well-worn message that Zuckerberg sent when he was 19, in which the Meta founder calls users of his nascent service "dumb fucks" for giving away their data freely. He went on to make ominous pronouncements about how Meta would invisibly manipulate what people see (doesn't Twitter do this too?), agree that the Threads logo looks like a tapeworm, replied with cry-laughing emojis to jokes about Threads, and here's the coup de grace:
"It is infinitely preferable to be attacked by strangers on Twitter," thundered Musk, "than indulge in the false happiness of hide-the-pain Instagram."
This is all so much chest-beating, and it does seem like the less Zuckerberg says in public the angrier Musk gets. In the absence of an employee-shaped smoking gun, the legal case is even less likely to go ahead than that cage match, and of course the real fight here is much simpler: can Threads scale to Twitter's level and beyond, or is it going to be another Meta offering that launches to great fanfare then withers.
"We're often imitated" said the recently appointed Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino yesterday, "but the Twitter community can never be duplicated." Yaccarino must be looking at these billionaire babies squabbling away and wondering what she's signed up for.