Meta Lends a Crowbar to Open the Gates of Social Media
A revolutionary approach to sharing content online is picking up steam and may well fix some pressing troubles of today’s troubled internet.
It didn't receive much fanfare outside of tech circles, but Meta Platforms Inc. took a pretty monumental step last week. For the first time, it allowed content posted on one of its apps to be interoperable with a social network it didn't own or control. After two decades of running a strictly walled garden, Meta was starting to open up.
The “why” is fascinating and quietly revolutionary. Please stick around to hear it, because unfortunately I must first explain the “how” — knowing full well that words like “fediverse,” “decentralized” and “protocol” can send even the most dedicated reader scrambling for an exit.
The current status quo with most social media — or other online spaces where users might build an identity or post content — is that accounts are locked down. If you want to leave X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, say, you're free to start an account somewhere else, but it means starting from scratch with zero posts and rebuilding your “social graph” — the people you follow and those who follow you. This is by design: Social networks want to make it hard to leave so that you don't.
We don't put up with this in our offline lives. You can meet the same friends in different pubs without having to reintroduce yourselves. And you could go with those same friends to the movies, or the tennis club, or the mall without having to create a new identity in each place.
The fediverse — meaning, federated universe — is an effort to re-create that experience online and, in doing so, solve some of the most pressing problems that exist on the modern internet. The core principle is the idea of a shared protocol adopted by many apps, allowing users to bring their identities to each as they see fit. More important, it gives them the power to up and leave an app, taking their data and connections with them.
The most popular protocol of this kind so far is ActivityPub, maintained by the same nonprofit that handles standards for the broader World Wide Web. Its most famous implementation at the moment isn't particularly famous: Mastodon, an X-like social network. The decentralized nature means that no single person has ultimate control over the network. Instead, any entity — whether company or individual — can set up their own Mastodon server and feed into the larger network. For this reason, it can't be bought up whole by some erratic billionaire. Elon Musk can no more buy the Mastodon network than he can buy email or the web itself.
Musk's purchase of Twitter, incidentally, is part of the fediverse's “why.” Or, more accurately, the why now. The centralized ownership of social media has been bothersome to a small but passionate group of people, but the furor around X — and before that, to a lesser extent, concerns over Meta's privacy record — have brought the matter to bear. When Meta launched Threads in July, mindful of shifting attitudes and its own reputation, the company announced it would build it on ActivityPub. The aim would be to make Threads accounts interoperate with Mastodon and possibly other networks. It was a hugely significant moment — the chance, finally, for ActivityPub and the “fediverse” concept of decentralized networks to hit the mainstream.
It seemed an unlikely pledge from a company that until now had been built on obsessively locking users into its platform in order to shovel ads down their throats. Indeed, it was a promise some thought Meta wouldn't keep. Yet last week, the company started to make good: Adam Mosseri, the executive in charge of Threads, announced that his account would be one of a small number of test cases in which his Threads posts would also be accessible through Mastodon. Mastodon users could reply to him, even if they didn't have a Threads account, or indeed any Meta account. “Eventually, it should also be possible to enable creators to leave Threads and take their followers with them to another app/server,” Mosseri said. “I believe that it's important that creators own their relationship with their audience.”
There is, understandably, some suspicion of Meta's motives. One concern, which has led some corners of the Mastodon community to preemptively block Threads posts from appearing on their network, is that Meta has merely stuck its finger in the air and determined the winds are blowing against centralized networks. And, therefore, far from being an advocate, it is trying to become a dominant force in ActivityPub to exert control over its direction and utilization. (For what it's worth, the creator of Mastodon isn't concerned about this, calling it a “step towards the interoperable social web that we've been advocating for.”)
Another theory — one I feel is more likely — is that while five years have passed since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, to Meta it feels almost like yesterday. The fear of falling out of public and lawmaker favor in such a devastating way, after what has been an extremely strong year, makes a more cautious and open attitude the only way forward. Utilizing ActivityPub is a less aggressive way to build yet another social media app and allows Meta to signal that it has changed its ways (notably, it's also taking an open source approach to AI development, too).
Regardless, its adoption of ActivityPub is a landmark moment. Others are getting involved, too. Flipboard, the magazine-styled news aggregator, is conducting tests to bring its content to the fediverse using ActivityPub, meaning posts made on its platform — previously accessible only there — can be accessed directly through other fediverse apps. Wordpress, the blogging platform that some data suggests powers more than 40% of all websites on the internet, is integrating ActivityPub into its software so publishers and bloggers can use it if they wish.
In 2024, expect this trend to pick up pace. Musk's ownership of X has had people grasping for alternatives — not just to X, but to our approach for sharing content and identity altogether. It's not enough to simply replicate X on some other server owned by a Silicon Valley giant, ripened for the same mistakes to happen again. The “fediverse” is a return to the fundamental principles of the “open” internet, where integrity and security comes from shared ownership and decentralization. After all, without these pillars, the internet would have never taken off in the first place.