The hottest new thing in social isn’t vertical video, and it’s not AI-driven algorithmic feeds. Instead, it’s a little-known, years-old protocol called ActivityPub that could help rewire the entire social fabric of the internet.
In recent months, a number of tech companies have thrown their resources into ActivityPub and what’s now known as “the Fediverse.” Tumblr is working with ActivityPub, as are Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, and even Meta. There’s now an official WordPress plug-in for ActivityPub, which will enable the protocol for something like half the internet all at once. Developers are using ActivityPub to build new and different takes on YouTube, Instagram, and much more. ActivityPub is everywhere! ActivityPub!
And, of course, there’s Mastodon, the ActivityPub–powered platform that has become a haven to Twitter Quitters all over the internet. But ask around the tech industry, and there’s a growing set of people who will tell you the future isn’t Mastodon but what it represents: a scaled ActivityPub-based social platform.
So what is ActivityPub? It’s a technology through which social networks can be made interoperable, connecting everything to a single social graph and content-sharing system. It’s an old standard based on even older ideas about a fundamentally different structure for social networking, one that’s much more like email or old-school web chat than any of the platforms we use now. It’s governed by open protocols, not closed platforms. It aims to give control back to users and to make sure that the social web is bigger than any single company.
ActivityPub is not a perfect protocol, and there’s a lot of work left to do to improve it. There’s also a lot that could go wrong and a lot of ways for its potential to be snuffed out by corporate interests or bad technology. And there will be plenty of competition in the race to reinvent social media: social upstarts like Artifact and Substack Notes are building their own closed platforms, and Bluesky, Farcaster, Nostr, and others are building their own open protocols that also aim to decentralize social networking entirely.
But the people who have been working on the web for decades, who have seen the energy around decentralization come and go so many times, claim it’s going to be different this time. “I think this year could be the breakout year for the Fediverse,” says Steve Teixeira, Mozilla’s chief product officer. “It certainly stormed in: I’ve had my Mastodon account since like 2017, and I hardly used it until last year.” Mike McCue, the CEO of Flipboard, echoes the sentiment: “I was there in the early days of the web, and this whole thing with ActivityPub is as big a deal as HTML was back then. This is the single biggest opportunity I’ve seen for the web since the dawn of the web.”
For most of the last 15 years, the social web has felt like a settled market. Facebook and Instagram won, Reddit and Snapchat were around, and everything was shifting toward algorithmic entertainment anyway. TikTok’s explosion changed the landscape, but then everything turned into TikTok anyway. If you want to use the internet to keep up with your friends and interests, you’ve been stuck inside the walled gardens of closed social platforms for a long time.
For most of the last 15 years, the social web has felt like a settled market — and then Elon Musk bought Twitter
And then Elon Musk bought Twitter. For years, it had been kind of a mess but chugging along — in many ways, the default answer to lots of questions about where to quickly reach an audience. Musk thought he could save Twitter, but it turns out he may have saved the idea of an open social internet instead. When Musk spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter and then systematically destroyed everything people loved about the platform, users went looking for something better. Seeing demand in the market, developers set out to build products to fill it.
Before we go too far, it’s helpful to understand what this vision for a better future of social actually is. “Decentralized social networking” is a heady concept, and it’s quite different from the way the internet works now. But here’s the simplest way I can think to explain it: to decentralize social networking is to completely separate the user interface from the underlying data. Any time you sign up for a new social app, you won’t have to rebuild your audience or re-find all your friends; your whole following and followers list come with you. Those things should be part of the internet, not part of an app.
Email is the best example of how this system works now: it’s based on open protocols that lots of services tap into, so while there are many email apps with different features and quality levels, your contacts carry over and will always work. (Can you imagine if you needed an Outlook address for your Outlook-using colleagues and a Gmail address for your Gmail-using friends, and then a Hotmail account just to talk to your aunt Gertrude? Well, that’s currently how social works now.)
Facebook is an even more helpful counterexample. Your friends on Facebook are your Facebook friends. You can’t export the list to use it in another app or easily follow all those same people on a separate platform. If you want to read Facebook posts or create your own, you have to do it on Facebook. This is an excellent situation if you happen to be in charge of Facebook, and it’s how Facebook became a cash machine for nearly two decades. Platform lock-in has always been the most profitable strategy.
But if our current social system was decentralized, you’d be able to post a picture on Instagram and I could see it and comment on it in the Twitter app. Your friends could read your tweets in their TikTok app. I could exclusively use Tumblr, and you could read all my posts in Telegram. Different apps would have different strengths and weaknesses, different moderation policies and creator tools, but you’d have the same set of followers and follow the same accounts no matter which platform you use. There would be no such thing as “Facebook friends” and “Twitter followers.” The social graph and the product market would split completely.
“We had this vision of a more peer-to-peer internet,” says Christine Lemmer-Webber, one of the co-editors of the ActivityPub standard. “But at the very least, if a server goes down, it should not be catastrophic to you.” Your social world shouldn’t live inside an app, she says, or depend on a company staying solvent. It should, and could, be much bigger than that.
You really cannot overstate how old an idea all this is. ActivityPub has been a finalized standard since 2018, but its roots go back almost as far as the web itself. “I have spent more than 15 years working on distributed social network protocols!” says Evan Prodromou, another of the co-editors of the ActivityPub standard. For years, he ran an open-source project called StatusNet and its flagship product Identi.ca, which aimed to be… basically a decentralized Twitter. He says he’s thrilled to see these protocols finally taking off: “I think that there’s been a lot of opportunity in this space, and I think a lot of people are looking and seeing that opportunity.”