June 24, 2024
Instagram Threads missed a moment to shine, as OpenAI's drama took place on X

Instagram Threads missed its moment to truly challenge X, this weekend’s OpenAI scandal indicates. Over the past few days, as news spread about the board’s decision to remove Sam Altman as OpenAI CEO, and the impacts of this wild and unexpected change rippled through Silicon Valley’s tech ecosystem, the conversation was largely not taking place on Threads, but on X. Journalists were breaking news on X, sharing the latest in the boardroom drama, the threatened employee exodus, the move to perhaps reinstate Altman and then Microsoft’s Monday morning announcement that Altman and OpenAI co-founder Greg Brockman had joined the company to lead a new AI team.

Pundits, tech executives and others impacted by OpenAI’s drama, including key players like Altman and Brockman, also used X’s platform to share their statements and telegraph their feelings about the changes. From Altman, these ranged from pronouncements about his love for OpenAI’s team to a selfie where he held up a guest ID pass for OpenAI, commenting, “First and last time i ever wear one of these” — a nod to the fact that the tech world was tuned into his account for the latest updates.

On X, OpenAI employees also reposted Altman’s post where he declared “I love the openai team so much,” while adding their own heart emojis — a message reportedly meant to signal to the board who was loyal to Altman and may leave OpenAI to follow him to his next venture. In a turn of events, one of those hearts came from then-intermin CEO Mira Murati.

Veteran journalist Kara Swisher, co-host of the Pivot podcast, also began breaking news about the upheaval directly on X. She noted that Microsoft — whose stock “got killed on the news” of the ouster — only found out minutes before OpenAI’s press release went out. She later scooped the reasoning behind the firing, pinning it to a misalignment between the for-profit arm and the nonprofit nature of OpenAI as a company, with its recent Developer Day bringing those tensions to a head.

Though Swisher cross-posted some of her updates to Threads, one of her X scoops saw 5.5 million views and 6,000 likes. On Threads, her biggest posts attracted single-digit thousands in terms of links. (Threads doesn’t show a view count.)

In addition to fast-arriving news from various publications, the main characters — like Altman, Brockman, Murati, and OpenAI’s chief scientist Ilya Sutskever, among others — also used X’s platform to share their thoughts, feelings and various statements on the situation.

Among the highlights were Altman’s “i love you all” X post, favorited 91,000 times; theories that Altman was sending a cryptic message about Ilya’s involvement (i love you all’s first letters spell out ILYA, remarked Bloomberg’s Emily Chang); Brockman’s post sharing his message to the OpenAI team after “learning today’s news” which suggested he, too, had been blindsided; his subsequent expression of shock and disbelief; and Murati’s now foreboding post that “OpenAI is nothing without its people.” 

Rumored replacement board candidates like Marissa Mayer and Brian Chesky also began posting on X in support of Altman and Brockman. Mayer even declared herself an “AI optimist” and suggested that the board shouldn’t just resign, but that OpenAI’s governance itself had “structural flaws” to be addressed.

Later Sutskever took to X to express his regret over his role in leading the board rebellion against Altman. “I never intended to harm OpenAI,” he wrote, after the sizable damage had already been done. 

Former Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, the current interim CEO of OpenAI, also announced his new role on X, though who knows how long he’ll hold the position at this point.

This fast-breaking news opportunity could have happened anywhere — X now has numerous rivals, from decentralized contenders like Mastodon and Bluesky, to startups like Spill and Post, to the Big Tech-owned Instagram Threads. But much of the OpenAI drama took place on X.

Despite X’s recent advertiser departures over brand safety concerns and reports of usage declines, X continues to prove itself “stickier” than first thought. Recent market intelligence has suggested that X’s declines in daily active users aren’t necessarily from reduced retention or from longtime Twitter users leaving the platform, but from X’s inability to backfill losses with new users after its rebranding to X, which saw it losing app store search rankings.

At the same time, Meta has positioned Threads as a non-news-focused alternative to X. In October, Instagram head Adam Mosseri even specifically stated that the company’s X rival would not “amplify” news on its platform in an effort to avoid risk, given the relative immaturity of its platform. It has also blocked some search terms related to news, like Covid, pointing to government resources instead.

As a result of this position, Threads missed its moment to become a place where the biggest of news breaks (at least in tech), ceding that ground to where it always has broken before: Twitter/X.

Still, all the OpenAI discourse and drama didn’t actually help X improve its metrics. There’s no indication that those who didn’t already use the app went to download it to read about the OpenAI drama, notes market intelligence provider data.ai. In fact, the firm said, X’s overall iOS ranking has slipped further from even earlier this month.

Another firm, Apptopia, also agreed with this finding, adding that the ongoings of this one specific company are of big interest to those in tech, but not the typical U.S. population. As a result, it only saw a “very slight uptick” in daily active users over the weekend, but noted it was smaller than the ebbs and flows that have happened over the past 90 days.


Image Credits: data.ai

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