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Who won the presidential debate: X or Threads?


Who had the better performance at Thursday night’s presidential debate, X or Threads? Though not the top concern among social media users, it’s one of the questions people are asking themselves after watching the disastrous debate play out across the two platforms.

Meta, which nearly a year ago launched Threads as a rival to the app formerly known as Twitter, has distanced itself from politics, saying it won’t proactively recommend political content to users unless they enable a new setting. X, meanwhile, has historically served as the second screen for real-time events, offering people a place to chat, react and tap into the collective opinions of others. But under Elon Musk’s ownership, the platform has begun to lean more right, at least one study indicates, making it less appealing to some of its former users.

So which platform best handled the debate? That depends on who you ask. There were definite differences between how the two platforms managed last night, with some saying X felt more alive, and others asserting that Threads proved that X is no longer necessary.

In terms of sheer numbers, X is still the larger social network, with Musk recently claiming the service now reaches 600 million monthly active users, around half of which use the platform daily. While he didn’t clarify if automated accounts or spam bots were included in those figures, X is still larger than Threads, which has at least 150 million monthly active users, as of Meta’s last public earnings announcement in April. (However, third-party stats show Threads has far beyond that figure now.)

The size of X’s user base lends credence to the argument that the Musk-owned platform felt more active, as there were simply more people posting. Other text-focused social networks, including those from startups like Bluesky and open-source efforts like Mastodon, don’t have nearly enough numbers to rival X or Threads on nights like this.

Still, not everyone agrees that volume was the only deciding factor here.

In a Threads post with nearly 800 likes, user Matthew Facciani wrote, “Threads was a very useful social media platform to follow this presidential debate. My timeline was full of political discussion and real-time updates. I didn’t miss Twitter/X at all.”

That same sentiment can be found throughout Threads, as even some newer users said they found Threads held up as an “engaging” and “intelligent” social media site. One called the Threads feed during the debates “electric.” A few pointed out that it felt like Threads had fewer “trolls” to deal with, compared with X. Others flat-out declared Threads was the winner last night.

Others still pointed to technical issues at X, which locked out high-profile users including Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson, journalist and political commentator Molly Jong-Fast, and others, just ahead of the debate’s airing.

Image Credits: Threads screenshot (opens in a new window)

Despite these positive reviews, there was still some concern about Threads’ ability to keep up in a real-time news environment. Threads user and technologist Chris Messina noted that Threads’ Trends didn’t immediately include a topic that focused on the presidential debate as a whole.

Instead, Threads was surfacing topics that came up during the debate, like the economy or the age difference between Trump and Biden. But many of these didn’t appear until an hour or so after the debate began — in other words, closer to when it ended — limiting Threads’ use as a real-time news network.

Screenshot
Image Credits: Threads screenshot (opens in a new window)

This is not the first time Threads has faced this problem.

When the NYC/New Jersey area was hit by an earthquake earlier this year, the event didn’t start trending on Threads until later in the day. At the time, Meta said that because the earthquake was a regional event and trends are based on national conversations, it may have taken more time for enough people to join the conversation. That explanation doesn’t hold up when it comes to Threads’ difficulties keeping up with the presidential debate — arguably a national conversation if there ever was one.

Meanwhile on X, the debate had its own hashtag (#Debates2024), which helped people discover who was posting about the event. And, similar to Meta’s app, it had tags focused on various side topics or people, like Biden.

Threads, on the other hand, does not have hashtags. Instead, its user interface ignores the hashtag symbol (#), and adds hyperlinks to words that are typed after the symbol is used. This can make it harder to discover topics, as there’s often not one primary tag gaining enough steam to start trending, compared with X. The lack of discoverability of Threads’ tags can lead to decreased usage, too.

There’s also confusion over which tag to use on Threads, as its users often create topics with the format “[Topic] Threads.” For example, “Tech Threads” is where you’d find the tech community discussions. That convention led to political discussions being split among a wide variety of tags, as some people used a more obvious tag like “presidential debate” (with or without a space or the year), while others used the format “Debate Threads.”

Threads critics also pointed out that X still has traction, in terms of being referenced by the media. For instance, one user noted they hadn’t seen a website, podcast or YouTube clip mention Threads in the context of the presidential debate as of yet. This, of course, is only anecdotal.

Plus, X’s ability to support long-form posts in addition to short ones made it the place where people could share more developed, fleshed-out thoughts about what they had seen on TV. Tech investor Mark Cuban, for instance, effectively wrote a blog post on X with his take on the debate.

Threads, however, has a 500-character limit on its posts.

While Threads certainly had a good showing last night, the fact that it’s still not able to keep up with trends and topics in real time continues to hamper its ability to compete with X as a news platform. Combined with Meta’s desire to distance itself from discussions of a political nature, Threads may never fully be able to supersede X.

Until this is resolved, we’ll have to call Threads merely a decent “alternative” to X, but not yet its replacement.





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