The first thing you need to know about Thred is that it’s a storytelling app created by Will Wright, the legendary video game designer and brain behind SimCity, The Sims, and Spore. He invented whole new genres of gaming. So when Wright announces an app for making “multi-image creations for anything from web comics, to logging your tropical vacation, to useful how-tos,” it’s going to get attention.
Available today on the iPhone in the U.S., Thred is an app for creating stories with multiple panels. It can be a photo album, or a comic book if you add stickers and overlay text on the image. There’s a main feed with all the basic features of a social network: You can “heart” posts, comment, follow people, or sort the feed to highlight popular picks. But what makes Thred more than Instagram with slideshows is its robust set of creation tools.
To start a new Thred, you can pull images from your photo library or search the web directly inside the app. Once you’ve loaded an image–or up to 30 images all at once–they can be manipulated using a fairly standard set of photo filters with fashion catalog names like veil, sans, and poe. These are juxtaposed with a variety of comic-book borders you can throw on for some wham! pow! action. Next, you might overlay a line of prose or perhaps write your thoughts in one of several text bubble options, choosing from at least 22 different fonts. Twenty minutes can go by pretty quickly once you start noodling around in a Thred.
One area where Thred excels is in stickers. While this is by no means a unique feature, in most apps stickers are usually a cute add-on with a limited variety of options (unless you’re using Line, which is on a different scale entirely). There are 10 categories of stickers in Thred, including animal stickers, storytelling stickers, and object stickers. Each pack contains at least a dozen options. And if you can’t find what you want in those packs, you can search the web for stickers you fancy. This feature is smartly built: It automatically searches Bing for transparent images that are ready-made to be placed in one of your Threds.
Thred’s main feed, at least during the beta test I took part in, is filled mostly with fun but impersonal posts. Yet Thred does have the potential to be a lifeblogging tool. One of the app’s main menu options leads to a timeline of your photos called Your Day. It’s a simple feature that becomes more powerful over time. Say you’re a foodie and want to create a Thred of all the hamburgers you’ve ever eaten; you could browse your photo album archive and add pictures of all those burgers in a Thred that includes location markers and descriptive text. Images in a Thred can be rearranged–listicles are a cinch–and since old Threds can be edited, you have the ability to update each story with new experiences at a later date. It’s one of the most powerful features of the app, but it also feels a bit buried. And, for now at least, Thred lacks some obvious data sets such as tweets, Spotify picks, or Facebook updates–all of which could help Your Day feel more robust. You can, however, link your Thred to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
Hyperlinking adds another layer of complexity. These links can be used to connect one of your Threds to someone else’s, or make a meta-image with links to your all of your posts. Hyperlinks could be used to produce games inside the app. There’s also a way to link Threds by location, opening some interesting possibilities around events and check-ins–Wright calls these “spatially distributed stories.” It’s a nifty feature, but one that seems geared to dedicated super-users at this point.
Despite the robust array of tools and story-building options in Thred, the app has several shortcomings. Threds are public both in the app and on the web–you can’t post them to just a small group of friends or privately with one other person. YVideo is not an option yet. And you can’t collaborate on a Thred, or let someone else add panels to a Thred you’ve already started.
The aesthetics are spare, and the user interface seems a bit generic. The lifeblogging app Path has its naysayers, but the interface is ingenious and evocative (if a bit too uptight). Super, the mobile image app from Biz Stone, isn’t nearly as feature-rich as Thred, but it does feel more focused and features more vibrant art direction. While Thred does a great job of letting its users express their personalities, the app seems to lack one of its own.
Marketing and finding an audience for Thred could be difficult. It’s a tough app to categorize since it’s not strictly about photos or lifeblogging, and it’s not quite a social network. Wright’s games have always been hard to define–that’s the price of being a pioneer and exploring new genres. But at least with his previous games he had the muscle of gaming giant Electronic Arts to help market his games to a fairly well-defined demographic. I’m not sure who Thred’s audience is intended to be. The range of featured posts in my feed includes meringue how-tos and a paean to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Some of the most popular Threds in the app are pegged to entertainment. There’s a Thred in which Avengers characters are gender-swapped, and another Thred about a new Indiana Jones movie. I’ve also heard about music videos being deconstructed frame-by-frame in Thred. Though it remains to be seen how the public will actually use Thred, it was clearly built for creative people.
The app features some of the hallmarks of Wright’s video game design, although it isn’t easy to recognize them in the app’s derivative card-based interface. While you could use Thred to make and play a game, that’s not what makes it a Wright design. Wright’s games all simplify massively complex ideas–build a city with a mouse, live a lifetime on a PC, grow life and populate the universe with task bars. In Thred, features from other mobile social and photo apps are boiled down to MS-Paint simplicity–even though its robust array of creation options make the app feel a little unfocused.
But perhaps that is what Thred most has in common with Wright’s previous games: All of his games feature a rich set of tools, which means users were empowered to play his games in their own unique ways–that’s part of the reason why people became so invested in playing them. The way I played SimCity was not the way you played SimCity–the worlds I built were a reflection of my values. The same goes for Thred–not all users are going to use it the same way. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, content may vary from user to user, but everyone is forced to use those platforms in basically the same way. Thred is more like a tool-rich platform for people who don’t know how to code–which means some people may use it for social networking, some people may use it for lifeblogging, some people may use it to create comics, and some people might use it to create hyperlinked games, among other potential use cases. All in all, Thred is an entertaining app with some compelling features and creative potential.
This article has been updated to reflect the corrections posted in the comments section below by Thred General Manager Katherine de León.