2023 in social media: the case for the fediverse

2023 in social media: the case for the fediverse
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There’s this picture from more than a decade ago that still goes viral on the web every once in a while. You’ve probably seen it: it was created by the venture capitalist Andrew Parker, and it compares a few dozen startups with subsections of Craigslist. Back then, Craigslist was all things to all people online, and a generation of startups figured they could do part of the job a lot better.

Some of those companies failed — sometimes because of Craigslist! — but some also became gigantically successful. Airbnb worked because it was more searchable, reliable, and trustworthy than a random Craigslist listing; StubHub sold you secondhand tickets without the 50 percent chance those tickets were fake; Etsy offered a much more fun shopping and discovery experience than a bunch of text listings and crappy photos.

This is the same opportunity in front of the social media landscape right now: a rare chance to unbundle the internet, to pull apart an existing system and rebuild it, piece by piece, in vastly better ways. If we do this correctly — if the next phase of how we congregate and communicate online is built for humans and not advertisers — there won’t be a new titanic company to rival Meta or a platform with eye-poppingly huge numbers like Facebook. What we’ll get instead is something much bigger: an entirely new infrastructure for our online lives that no company or platform controls.

The reason this suddenly feels possible is the emergence of the fediverse. In a sentence, the fediverse is an interconnected set of apps that can all read and write the same content. Decentralized social media is often compared to email, in that you don’t have to compose, organize, and read your messages all in the same app, and you and I don’t have to use the same tools to communicate. Email apps can have different interfaces, different privacy policies, even wildly different ideas about what email is for. Every app knows what an email address is, and every email address can talk to every other.

The point is that email is just data, and lots of apps can understand and manipulate it. When Meta’s Adam Mosseri posts on Threads and you see it on Mastodon, that’s the fediverse at work. If you post on Mastodon and I see it in my Pixelfed feed, that’s fediverse too. When I comment on your Flipboard post and it shows up as a reply in the Mastodon feed you check through the Mammoth app? Pure fediverse, baby. 

I’m convinced we’ll be better off with a hundred different apps for Snapchat or Instagram or X instead of just one

I’m convinced we’ll be better off with a hundred different apps for Snapchat or Instagram or X instead of just one, a dozen companies competing to build the best moderation tools, and an app store filled with different ways for me to follow and be followed by other people on the internet. It doesn’t make sense that we have a dozen usernames, a dozen profiles, a dozen sets of fans and friends. All that stuff should belong to me, and I should be able to access it and interact with it anywhere and everywhere.

The infrastructure underlying all of this is typically ActivityPub, a decade-old protocol overseen by the World Wide Web Consortium (also known as the group more or less in charge of how the internet works). There are other similar protocols as well, like Bluesky’s AT Protocol and Nostr and Farcaster. I’d bet heavily that ActivityPub becomes the default choice over time, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter so much which protocol wins as long as one of them does. We don’t need two internets, and we don’t need two social protocols. We need one thing that is both simple enough and big enough to handle all the ways we connect with each other online. No centralized platform has ever been big enough. The fediverse can be.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray”>Image: Mastodon

Decentralizing social media can sound like a sort of kumbaya anti-capitalist manifesto: “It’s about openness and sharing, not capitalism, man!” In practice it’s the opposite: it’s a truly free market approach to social networking. Mastodon may not be interested in becoming a trillion-dollar company, but there’s no reason there can’t be plenty of those built on the fediverse. It’s just that in a fediverse-dominated world, the way to win is not to achieve excellent lock-in and network effects. The only way to win is to build the best product.

This is really not a particularly hot take, by the way. Even the most successful centralized platforms have long understood that a protocol-driven social web is a good idea. Jack Dorsey used to say that Twitter was better as a protocol than a platform, and started the project that became Bluesky before also helping get Nostr going. (We really don’t need to get into the whole story of what happened to Twitter since then, except to say that the speed with which that platform changed made a lot of people acutely aware that we need a social ecosystem that can resist the whims of a single company or CEO.) 

Meanwhile, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to earnestly believe that bringing Threads to the fediverse is a good idea, both for its product and for its business. “Not everyone wants to use one product,” he said to my colleague Alex Heath earlier this fall, “and I think making it so that they can use an alternative but can still interact with people on the network will make it so that that product also is more valuable.” Mark Zuckerberg! Said that! He understands that people want to feel like their social connections and content belong to them, not to a company that can disappear or pivot or change its ways. And let’s be real: if Meta can’t build and maintain the One True Social Network For Everybody, nobody can. It’s well past time to try something else.

The only way to see your Facebook posts is to sign up for Facebook’s rules, Facebook’s aesthetic, Facebook’s features, Facebook’s moderation, Facebook’s algorithm, and Facebook’s business model.

Right now, every social platform is a universe unto itself. The only way to see your Facebook posts is to sign up for Facebook’s rules, Facebook’s aesthetic, Facebook’s features, Facebook’s moderation, Facebook’s algorithm, and Facebook’s business model. That’s not just a bad user experience, it’s a ridiculous way to run a company. Facebook has to invent and maintain all these things, just as every one of its competitors does. It’s an impossible task but just as impossible to compete with; you can’t build social products without building an entire social graph from scratch, and good luck with that.

In a fediverse world, rather than try to build another all-encompassing Facebook from scratch, an enterprising developer can pick one or a few of its features and try to do better. Users can pick their favorite app — or two, or two hundred — through which to get their posts. Because everything is based on one set of posts and an open network of friends and followers, new social products can be useful even if you’re the very first user.

In the world of ActivityPub, every post everywhere is made up of a sender, a message, and a URL. Every user has an inbox and an outbox for those messages. That’s the whole protocol in a nutshell. The simplicity is the point: since ActivityPub is not a product but a data format like PDF or JPG, what you do with those messages, those URLs, those inboxes and outboxes, is entirely up to you. 

You could have a Twitter-like app that emphasizes text, or an Instagram-like one with a UI that shows photos first. Your federated YouTube could be full of everybody’s videos, or you could make TikTok by filtering only for short and vertical ones. You could use a WhatsApp-style messaging app that only cares about messages sent directly to someone’s inbox.

You could try to do all those things, or you could try to do something nobody’s ever been able to do before. You could build a news reader that only includes posts with links to news sites and automatically loads those links in a nice reading interface. You could build a content moderation tool that any fediverse app could use to filter and manage content on their platform. You could build the perfect algorithm that only up-ranks shitposts and good jokes, and license that algorithm to any app that wants a “Epic Posts Only” mode. You could build an app that’s just an endless feed of great stuff for NBA fans. You could build one that’s just for crypto true believers. You could build one that lets you swipe from one to the other depending on your mood.  

There are already a few platforms built on ActivityPub and embracing the ideas of the fediverse. Apps like Mammoth and Ivory are showing the potential for different user experiences on top of the same data and infrastructure. But so far we’re mostly in the “popular app, but federated” phase of this transition. (Which is definitely better than “popular app, but blockchain” from a couple of years ago… but not by much.) 

So far we’re mostly in the “popular app, but federated” phase of this transition

Mastodon deliberately looks and feels like Twitter. (So do Firefish and Pleroma and GoToSocial and others. The fediverse is super into replacing Twitter.) Pixelfed is Instagram through and through. Lemmy’s features are virtually all ripped straight from Reddit. Almost everything in the fediverse is a one-to-one competitor to an existing platform: PeerTube to YouTube; Friendica to Facebook; BookWyrm to Goodreads; on and on it goes. Some of these apps are very good! But nearly all of them are differentiated only in that they’re federated.

Let’s be super clear about this: the point of the fediverse is not that it’s federated. The most consistent argument against the long-term viability of platforms like Mastodon is that most people don’t give a hoot about the underlying protocols and infrastructure of their apps and just want things to be easy, reliable, and useful. That is absolutely, unequivocally true. Making the “It’s federated!” argument is like making the “It’s better for privacy!” argument: it makes you feel good, and at best it’s a useful tiebreaker, but it doesn’t actually matter. All that matters is the product.

The best thing about the fediverse is that it will actually enable an explosion of better social products, for lots of reasons but one in particular: it allows for so many more of them. Forget the hand-wavy protocol stuff for a second — one of the best things about embracing ActivityPub is that it sticks a crowbar into a single Voltron-ic product like Facebook or Twitter or Snapchat and pries it apart into its component pieces, each one ripe for innovation and new ideas.

We’re still in the very early days of the fediverse, and it’s going to be messy for a while. It might feel like you’re seeing the same posts too many times, and like you see some posts that obviously weren’t meant to be seen in the app or feed you’re using. Some particularly thirsty influencers are going to go hard on cross-posting tools that threaten to clutter up all your feeds everywhere and become totally unavoidable. This is not a problem with the protocols; it’s an opportunity for better products. There’s plenty of money to be made in the fediverse, and plenty of space for new products to take off.

If 2023 was the year “fediverse” became a buzzword, 2024 will be the year it becomes an industry. (Hopefully one with a better name, but I’ll get over that.) We’ve spent too long living our lives online in someone else’s spaces. What’s next will belong to all of us. All that’s left to do is start posting.

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