Protocol-Based Social Media Is Having A Moment As Meta, Medium, Flipboard, And Mozilla All Get On Board
from the make-it-so dept
Over the last couple of weeks there have been a number of interesting developments regarding protocol-based, decentralized social media, and each time I plot out an article about it, something else pops up to add to the story, including Thursday evening as I finally started writing this and news broke that Meta (parent company of Facebook and Instagram) is at least in the early stages of creating an ActivityPub-compatible social media protocol and app, that it considers to be something of a Twitter competitor.
Meta, the parent firm of Facebook and Instagram, is hashing out a plan to build a standalone text-based content app that will support ActivityPub, the decentralised social networking protocol powering Twitter rival Mastodon and other federated apps, people familiar with the matter told Moneycontrol.
The app will be Instagram-branded and will allow users to register/login to the app through their Instagram credentials, they said. Moneycontrol has seen a copy of an internal product brief that elaborates on the functioning and various product features of the app.
The program is apparently codenamed P92, and conceptually it makes sense. Platformer got the company on the record confirming the effort:
“We’re exploring a standalone decentralized social network for sharing text updates,” the company told Platformer exclusively in an email. “We believe there’s an opportunity for a separate space where creators and public figures can share timely updates about their interests.”
I’m at least a little amused, because I’ve had multiple conversations with Meta/Facebook execs over the years regarding my “Protocols, Not Platforms” paper, explaining to them why it would make sense for the company to explore the space, and was told repeatedly why they didn’t think it would ever make sense for a company like Meta.
How times change.
Back in December, we predicted this sort of thing, asking when ActivityPub might have its “Gmail moment” and discussing how Google single-handedly changed email when it entered the market with Gmail on April 1, 2004.
And in the last couple of weeks there have been a bunch of really interesting moves from companies with long internet histories. It started last week when news aggregator Flipboard announced not just a tepid ActivityPub integration, but that it was going to fully embrace it. Flipboard founder Mike McCue stopped by my office the day before to talk about the company’s plans, and this isn’t just a random side-project. McCue recognizes that betting on protocols is the way to bring back the promise of the early internet, and taking us away from being solely reliant on internet giants. While early on, the company has already launched its own instance for Flipboard users to sign up (if they’re not already on another instance), and deeply integrated Mastodon into the app in ways that feel completely organic and natural (to the point that I, as a lapsed Flipboard user, have begun exploring the app again).
Days later, the ever popular site for hosting long-form writing, Medium (which was founded by Twitter and Blogger co-founder Ev Williams) announced that it, too, had launched its own Mastodon instance at me.dm for members of its $5/month premium subscription.
And, just around the time that the Meta news became public, Mozilla (which had previously announced such plans) turned on its own instance, mozilla.social.
All of these are important moves, and all of them happening within a two week period suggests that momentum is building towards recognizing how important a protocol-based world is, over a centralized-siloed world.
Also, having these larger companies embrace the space will do a bunch of important things to drive a protocol-driven world forward. For starters, they will hopefully help with the onboarding process — one of the major things that new users complain about in trying to get set up with Mastodon. The dreaded “but what server should I use?” question seems to stump many — but with more recognized and trusted brands entering the space, that question becomes less of an issue.
With these companies entering the fediverse, we’re also likely to see much greater improvement in other areas as well, including new efforts to improve features and UI. We’ve already seen a bunch of mobile and web app developers creating more beautiful front ends for Mastodon, but I’m expecting a lot more of that as well.
I also expect that this will filter down into the core code and protocol. With more companies working to join the fediverse, it creates something of a virtuous cycle that should benefit the wider space. It also should allow for much greater experimentation with new ideas and features (and that might lead to busting some old myths that resulted in poor initial design choices).
There are also lots of important features — especially tools for admins — that really haven’t received nearly enough attention and development, and having these bigger companies, who understand the space and the need, will hopefully spur more development.
Of course, as noted, as I started to plan out this article, I was mostly focused on the companies like Flipboard, Medium, and Mozilla and their efforts. All three have been extremely respectful in how they’ve been exploring and entering the fediverse. All three seemed to focus on participating and listening as they figured out their plans, and doing so in a way that fits with the fediverse, rather than trying to bend it to their will (and even so, they did upset some people).
Meta, somewhat obviously, is a bit of a different beast. And certainly some on Mastodon and other ActivityPub platforms are worried. I’d argue, however, that Meta embracing ActivityPub is a phenomenal thing. First: it’s validation. It shows that Meta recognizes that something is happening. Second, everything I noted above about spurring needed improvements also applies here and Meta could provide a lot of help. Third, even as there are some who want to keep Mastodon smaller, if it’s really going to thrive, it needs to continue to grow and be introduced to more people. The nice thing about the fediverse is that you can craft it to meet your own needs, so if you really want to keep it small, there are ways for you to do that yourself, and create a smaller community.
But the biggest reason why I think it’s so important that Meta is now even willing to explore the fediverse, is because it shows (as my paper suggested) that the largest most siloed companies can absolutely benefit from moving away from that model and towards a more open, distributed, protocol-based world. The old Twitter had suggested that could be the case when it embraced protocols and set up the independent Bluesky project, which Jack Dorsey and Parag Agrawal intended to eventually replace Twitter’s infrastructure. But seeing Meta explore it as well is obviously even bigger. And, honestly, I’d be shocked if Google weren’t similarly playing around with something.
Of course, this is Meta we’re talking about. There’s just as much likelihood that P92 never amounts to anything. There’s also the possibility that Meta tries the old “embrace, extend, extinguish” playbook of Microsoft. However, one of the nice things about ActivityPub is that it should be somewhat resistant to such efforts. And, as such, it also creates its own incentives to keep companies like Meta in check. Because if it starts acting “evil,” then the fact that it’s easy to move elsewhere (without losing contact with everyone) acts as a natural pressure valve, creating incentives to keep even the most evil companies in check.
And, speaking of Bluesky, last week, it also opened the (invite-only, currently) doors to the beta version of its app. While I’m excited about ActivityPub and Mastodon, I’m also excited about Bluesky. As I’ve discussed, the folks working on it are incredibly thoughtful in how they’ve been approaching this, and I think that the underlying AT protocol they’ve created actually solves many of the protocol-level limitations found in ActivityPub that have frustrated some folks in the fediverse. I believe that the Bluesky team explored ActvityPub and recognized its limitations, and that was the reason it chose to work on AT Protocol instead.
I do wonder, however, if Bluesky is going to end up deciding that it somehow needs to embrace ActivityPub in some form or another as well, especially as it has been building a larger and more entrenched userbase (which may continue to grow as more companies move in). I’m still optimistic about Bluesky, because I think the approach is even better than ActivityPub, but in the end, having a critical mass of users is the most important thing.
All that said, this much activity in the last few weeks shows that protocol-based social media is having a moment. I’m not saying that it’s the moment that inevitably leads to a bigger shift in how we view the internet, because it could still all come crashing down. But, something’s happening, and it’s pretty exciting.
And it brings me back to a question I asked a few months ago: why would anyone spend time embracing/using another centralized social media service after this? This is your opportunity to contribute to a better future internet. For all the complaining about “big tech” and the lack of competition, here’s the chance to make a difference, to embrace an internet that is more about the users than the companies, where power and control are moved to the ends of the network (the users) rather than the owners of the walled gardens.
There’s a real opportunity now to help make that better future. I recognize that there’s a decent contingent of cynical people out there who keep telling me it will never work, and we’re all locked into this world of big awful companies. And, who knows, perhaps things will go that way. But, why give in to that when there’s at least a real chance for something better? Something that more approximates the end-to-end internet we were promised?
Something is happening right now, and its success or failure is dependent on what people do next. So why would we not join in and try and build something better? Join a fediverse instance, encourage others to join, or even create your own. Participate in the myriad discussions about how to make things better for everyone. Generate ideas of how the technology can be put to use for good, and then put those ideas into action.