How Instagram Threads Became the WikiHow for Gen Z
How does a Google-averse generation figure out how to deal with acne, fake friends, and boy trouble? On Instagram, of course.
When Sophie, a 13-year-old in Arizona, began eighth grade last year, she wanted to start things off on the right foot. Instead of picking up the latest issue of Teen Vogue or googling around for advice, she reached for her phone and followed a slew of “thread” accounts on Instagram.
These accounts provide her, and the thousands of other teens and tweens who have become addicted to them, with a daily feed of highly digestible information about how to tackle acne, become more popular at school, deal with fake friends, get a boyfriend, keep your grades up, and more. They have names like @selfcaresis, @selfcarethreads, and @selfcove, and they look like this:
Thread accounts on Instagram have been around for more than a year, but in the past six months they have exploded in popularity, racking up hundreds of thousands of followers.
“Younger people need threads because a lot of them are trying to find how to take control,” says Sophie, whose name has been changed because of her age. “Adults are really busy people, and they don’t go on Insta that much ... Threads aren’t really aimed to them. A lot are like, how to do better in school. Adults work and they don’t go to school where they have to deal with all the stuff we do.”
And Grace, a 15-year-old who regularly engages with self-help threads, says they “offer reassurance and help because they gather all of the information under one heading.”
The thread accounts themselves are most often run by older teens or college-age “adults.” Kimberly Webb, a 19-year-old in Texas, estimates that she’s created hundreds of threads, which she has posted to several accounts. Her most popular account grew to more than 30,000 followers in just a matter of months. (She has a Twitter account, but self-help and advice threads don’t really go viral on Twitter, she says—she only has one follower there.)
Webb says that making the threads is easy. She gets topic inspiration from her community, or things she’s struggled with in the past. “I’ve had people DM me, ‘How do I make friends? How do I have my first kiss?’” she says. She and other thread-account admins say that they’re often the first person their young followers will come to for advice, and that they can spend hours a day fielding messages from teens requesting threaded solutions to their problems.
Webb researches solutions by watching YouTube videos, then condenses that knowledge down into short chunks of information that she bullets into threads. She says that there’s a lot of misinformation on Google and she has found that trusted makeup and fitness YouTubers provide better tips.
Webb estimates that it takes her around 30 minutes to create a thread—more for ones that require extra research or watching longer videos. She creates the majority of them while she’s bored at home or killing time, like when she’s on the StairMaster. And for now, at least, she’s not monetizing her hobby: Webb says she simply likes the feeling she gets when her threads perform well, and she’s developed a community across her accounts that has led to several close friendships.
Henrietta Dwumfour, a 20-year-old in Georgia, began posting threads last year to her main account, @cleopatrathefoxx, initially because she noticed them becoming popular. “They work really well with the algo to get more followers,” she says. “The most popular one I made was how to fix your baby hairs on your face. I’m African American, so we have a coarse hair type. It’s hard to lay your hair the best way ... It really blew up and spread really wide.”
Thread makers suspect that the format performs so well for a few reasons. Kids respond with feedback or tag friends in posts they think they’ll like, so comment sections on most threads are very active. And most followers also swipe through each gallery to the very end, something that may be favorable to the Instagram algorithm.
Dwumfour says that threads with the simplest advice perform best: What seems like common sense to an adult or college student might be novel to your average 12-year-old. “They’re young,” Dwumfour says of typical thread followers, “so they think putting a piece of paper under your eyelashes so the mascara doesn’t get on you is the most innovative thing ever.”
Webb says that once she activated analytics on her Instagram account and realized exactly how young her audience was, she began to tailor her threads. Her most popular post was actually a guest submission from one of her 12-year-old followers called “Things You Need to Do Before You Die.”
“They were the simplest things ever, like ‘go camping,’ ‘go to a yoga class.’ It was very clearly made by a 12-year-old,” says Webb. “That’s when I realized they were all so young and I needed to target a younger audience to get more engagement. When I was young I googled my issues instead of DMing someone on Insta about it, but I just think that’s how the younger generation does it.”
Teens say they’d basically do anything to avoid searching for answers to their problems outside of Instagram. Unlike threads, web pages don’t follow any standardized format, and teens say that navigating the open web, especially sites with ads and pop-ups, was a frustrating waste of time.
“The format is just a lot easier to read than stuff like Google,” says Sophie. “You can read longer things in little chunks. It’s not like reading this giant paragraph at once. No one wants to do that.”
Teens say that another benefit of threads is that you don’t have to waste time searching around—the information is delivered to you based on your interests and whom you follow—and that threads feel more trustworthy than search engines.
“They are ... more reliable as you can check the comments and ask for advice from that account, so you get more of a personalized experience,” says Grace. “Google seems formal normally, whereas threads ... have a more relaxed feel.”
But some say that the thread trend is already beginning to peak as more and more teens begin lazily creating them simply to attract followers.
“A lot of these accounts come up with ‘solutions’ to problems I didn’t even think I had, so I think it might just be the case that they aren’t even thinking about these things until they see them on the Explore page,” says Joyce, a 14-year-old in New York. At this point, she says, a lot of the advice she sees is contradictory, shallow, or bad. “They think coconut oil is a cure for everything.”