I have a confession to make: I still love social media. I know, I know: every single platform is on a spectrum from deeply problematic to full-on toxic (apart from maybe LinkedIn, which at worst can be a bit irritating with its ‘inspirational’ posts from the ‘always hustling’ variety of entrepreneur). Social media is unquestionably the root of so many societal ills, from disinformation campaigns that have influenced national and global political outcomes in favour of bad actors, to normalising hate speech and encouraging polarisation, to magnifying and spreading conspiracy theories, to young women’s plummeting self-esteem (did any parent of girls not have a pain in their heart seeing Dove’s Cost of Beauty campaign this year?)

The scales are irrefutably weighted firmly towards the negative impact of social media. But, for me, there are still a lingering few grams of value that stop the imbalance being so complete that I want to delete all my accounts and never post or scroll again. And I appreciate that many more sensible people than me have done just that and reported the notably positive effect on their mental health and worldview.

I joined Twitter in 2009, three years after it was founded by Jack Dorsey and co, and remember the early days when it was fun and friendly. I was a freelancer working from home with two very small children and it was, frankly, a lifeline. It became a place to talk to and share experiences with other writers and mums; it stopped me feeling isolated, professionally and personally. I even made a couple of friends on there who I met up with IRL. It really did feel like a community. Over the years, I curated my Twitter bubble to include a few hundred scientists, artists, academics, historians, global news outlets, editors, PR professionals and marketers.

Over the years, the platform became the premier global communications channel: it has helped to raise awareness of and funds for charities and humanitarian causes, helped people to find work, held poor customer service to account, given a voice to communities and citizens who had none, and highlighted rapid real time updates of situations from anywhere in the world – even if there were no official reporters on the ground.

But a few years ago (can anyone even pinpoint when things started to go downhill?) it became necessary to start blocking, and restricting DMs; although as a journalist I’m always conscious of paying attention to and being curious about all sides of a story, the rapid deterioration of nuanced discourse and the proliferation of trolls, personal attacks and angry, fixed-position posts started to seem… unhealthy.

Nevertheless, Twitter was still the first app I opened in the morning and was always an open tab on my desktop. It was a valuable portal to primary sources and verified publishers and broadcasters in the event of breaking news around the world, and a crucial channel to share content from (and elicit comment and tip-offs for) PRovoke Media with thousands of followers, as well as chatting about TV, cats, movies, food, holidays and other trivia. It was also where almost all of my PR and communications industry contacts lived.

For brands, that follower ratio (and its associated potential reach and engagement), also grew to become a core element of marketing strategy, not only through clever and often witty organic conversations during cultural moments, but also through using Twitter as a primary paid advertising channel. The Twitterati moaned about all the ads peppering their feeds, but that was the accepted price to pay for what was, for many years, an incredibly valuable platform for users, and an incredibly valuable brand in its own right: when Elon Musk bought Twitter in October last year, he handed over $44 billion.

The platform’s value, however, has plummeted in the intervening months; asset manager Fidelity, which at the time of the sale owned a stake worth $20 million, said in May that its stake was worth $6.75 million – which would have put Twitter’s overall value at $14.75 billion.

By the end of June, Brand Finance said the platform was worth only $3.9 billion – an astonishing 91% drop in value in eight months – and Twitter had dropped 11 points in its Media 50 ‘brand strength’ ranking. Brand Finance MD Richard Haigh said on publication of the 2023 report:Brand valuation considers intangible and tangible assets, and Musk has overlooked one of brands’ most important resources: people. Twitter needs to address issues surrounding its reputation and brand equity to return to brand value growth.”

The reasons for the nosedive in Twitter’s worth (and reputation) since Musk’s takeover are many, varied and well-documented, including charging for ‘blue tick’ verification (then giving a blue tick to anyone who paid, even if they were fake or satire accounts); mass redundancies, in the thousands, that affected functionality and moderation; being far more accepting of trolls and offensive discourse (including a fair amount of unpleasantness from the new owner himself); and then, at the start of July, a server emergency that led to tight restrictions on the number of tweets that could be viewed, rendering the platform practically unusable.

All of which – particularly the deteriorating environment, aka a ‘bin fire’ – understandably gave brands that had previously used Twitter for advertising, comms and marketing purposes for years extremely chilly feet. Who on earth would could risk paying to have an ad that could very easily be seen, and screengrabbed, right next to some hateful anonymous rant? As PRovoke Media’s founder and chairman Paul Holmes said in this damning piece in April on why marketers were (and should be) turning away in droves, “Twitter has turned into Truth Social without the integrity.”

Indeed, brands pulled out early, and fast: Twitter lost half its top advertisers – including Tata, Chevrolet, GM and Ford – in the first month of its new ownership, and by July this year, the platform had lost half its total ad revenue, with the likes of Mars, Merck, Kellogg’s and VW also halting spend.

But what else could offer everything that Twitter could, without the toxicity? The question of where millions of Twitter refugees – individuals, organisations, businesses and brands – should go led to exploration (and overwhelm, for moderators) of previously low-key platforms like Mastodon and Bluesky. Many of us have dipped our toes into those waters in recent months; they seem far nicer, but no-one is asserting they are truly an alternative, particularly for brands and corporate accounts.

Then, days after Twitter announced the tweet restrictions, something unexpected happened: Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp owner Meta announced it was launching Threads, a platform – at first glance uncannily similar to Twitter, but without the grubby tarnish. In its first week, 100 million users signed up, many taking advantage of the ability to gain an instant feed and following by transferring over their community from sister site Instagram.

Two weeks after Threads’ launch, I chaired a PRCA webinar on what the comms industry thought of Threads so far. The panel was cautiously positive: they liked the non-toxic vibe and the emphasis on conversation, but the jury was out on whether Threads is more Instagram with words, or retro Twitter.

They also noted that, as Threads had essentially launched in beta mode – probably to take advantage of the latest Twitterstorm – there was much room for improvement in its functionality for it to yet rival Twitter in terms of usefulness for brands and communicators. This included the need for Threads to integrate with APIs; to enable search, hashtags, trending topics, lists and DMs; and, crucially, to introduce paid ads (due later this year).

All concluded it was far too soon, with far too little data, to assess whether or how Threads would work as part of a brand’s owned, earned or paid social media and influencer strategies, and how campaign success will be measured.

The response to Threads’ arrival from brands has been interesting, and somewhat refreshing: early adopters such as Netflix, Anthropologie, Starbucks, Wendy’s, Aldi and Spotify almost sounded giddy, with humour and cheekiness in their conversations with consumers and other brands giving them a distinct personality as they started to grow their communities in this brave new world.

Levels of usage have, inevitably, dipped sharply after the first flurry of interest, but there’s no doubt Threads is the strongest contender yet to inherit Twitter’s mayoral badges of office and become the world’s town square.

What also struck me about the launch of Threads was the extent, content and tone of communications from boss Adam Mosseri, who first joined Facebook as a product designer in 2008 and in 2018 became head of Instagram. From the off, he’s been honest and open about Threads being a work in progress, about what it can and can’t do, yet.

Mosseri has said – and demonstrated – that he and his team (for whom he has expressed respect and pride, in sharp contrast to Musk’s treatment of the incumbent Twitter team) are listening, testing and learning. The first pressing request from users was for a chronological feed of accounts they were actually following, rather than suggested/tailored content; this arrived exactly three weeks after launch.

This is markedly more grown-up than Musk’s use of his own unstable platform, where he repeatedly and by his own admission manages to make things even worse with his tweets; famously, after firing the entire PR team on his arrival, in March this year he declared that the response to all press enquiries would be the ‘poop’ emoji. Classy.

Musk’s response to the launch of Threads was… quite dramatic. Just days ago, he rebranded Twitter as ‘X’, jettisoning what remained of its 17-year brand equity and legacy overnight.

His new CEO, Linda Yaccarino, is doing her best to get everyone excited about a new dawn for the platform – promising features “centered in audio, video, messaging, payment/banking” and making it a “global marketplace for ideas, goods, services, and opportunities” powered by AI – but it’s going to take an awful lot to regain the trust and support of brands and individuals who have already left or substantially dialled down their Twitter usage.

Whatever happens with Twitter, sorry, ‘X’, the elephant in the room here, of course, is that for all Threads’ welcome rays of sunshine, it’s still a Meta product. Meta, the company that mines its users’ personal data with impunity. The technology giant run by Mark Zuckerberg, who developed Facebook, the platform that with Cambridge Analytica’s help managed to sway some pretty serious election results around the world pre-Covid.

It’s quite weird seeing someone who has forever had a reputation as a merciless tech mogul and a terrible leader not being seen as the worst bad guy in the room, for once. The launch of Threads may have seen Zuck’s reputational stock inch up a few points, but it’s probably a bad idea to forget about all the other Meta stuff.

Communicators and marketers often talk about the nebulous concept of “brand love”. They are usually talking about buyers, users, employees and stakeholders positively engaging with and feeling an emotional connection and loyalty to a brand. But the leaders of those brands – including X and Threads – need to feel and demonstrate brand love, too. We like to think we can smell inauthenticity, ego, indifference, exploitation and bullshit a mile off. And few brands – under the spotlight more than ever for who they are associating with and where they are doing business – can now risk being aligned with (or are willing to spend dwindling budgets on) a platform that simply doesn’t mirror their own values.

It’s not difficult to draw the conclusion that Mosseri loves Threads and the process of creating something he sees as a force for good, but Musk doesn’t love Twitter: it’s a plaything that he wanted and spent all his pocket money on, and now he’s got it, he’s smashed it, just because he could. In the movie meme of the moment, if Mosseri is Barbie, Musk is Oppenheimer.

Personally, I’m pretty mad with Musk for his multiple, wanton acts of destruction of a planet I lived relatively peacefully on for nearly 14 years, but maybe we’ll see with hindsight that blowing up Twitter was the only way forward.

It’s still early days for Threads, and the former bird site hasn’t quite sung its final song, but the current battle between the two social media giants shows there’s a huge difference – not least in terms of brand value and reputation – between moving fast (but with care) to disrupt a sector, and moving fast and actually breaking things.