I’ve spent the last few weeks immersing myself in the “fediverse”. Starting with just exploring Mastodon, I’ve burrowed deep into the rabbit hole. Much to my enjoyment, I’ve discovered that the open web is undergoing a renaissance.
One that I’m eager and excited to be part of. And you can, too!
But before getting into that, let’s take a step back and try to understand what the federated web, the fediverse, is.
Closed networks and open protocols
Picture your favourite social network. Now imagine it doesn’t suck.
What you actually want to imagine is a scenario where you and your friends had different favourite social networks. You like Xtwitter while your friend prefers Instagram. But in this imaginative internet utopia, that didn’t really matter; you could follow your friend from Instagram and see their updates in your Xtwitter feed.
How? Well, it’s actually not very hard to achieve, from a technical side.
Since most social media content is fairly simple, from a data perspective, all you need is a standard for how that data is presented. And how it can be shared and accessed, and so forth and so on. (Can you sense that I’m skating on thin ice here?)
In technical lingo, we’d refer to this as a protocol.
Protocols are the backbone of everything we do online. The hypertext transfer protocol is the foundation for all websites, and how we connect those websites through hyperlinking.
And when we’re sending and receiving emails, we’re relying on protocols as well. Which is nice, because that means that you and I can still write to each other even if you’re using Gmail and I’m still clinging to my Hotmail account.
When it comes to the social web, though, interconnectedness was put in the backseat. And we all just kinda went along with it. Even though it would be completely unthinkable to need a different email account for every provider out there, to communicate with your friends on the different platforms, that’s exactly what we said yes to for social media.
Our social lives on the web — instead of remaining true to the original vision of an open and interconnected network — were confined to walled gardens.
Did your friends prefer other gardens? Tough luck.
Maybe your garden was owned by a company that aspired to become Skynet? Too bad.
Or maybe your garden got acquired by an eclectic megalomaniac that wanted to impose his personal values and ideals on the entire community? Well that sucks.
In all of these cases, you, the user, only had one choice if you wanted to rebel. Pack up your stuff, find another garden and start over again from scratch.
ActivityPub and the fediverse to the rescue
One possible solution to this comes in the form of a protocol called ActivityPub. According to Wikipedia it is “an open, decentralized social networking protocol.”
In plain speak, it is a set of rules for how websites that want to socialise with other websites. Rules that describe a standardised way of sharing content and interactions between anyone who wants to participate.
These rules ensure that, even if you prefer one garden (or platform, which is probably a more technically correct term) and I prefer another, we can still see each other’s updates, and interact with each other.
Now that’s neat!
Of course, that assumes both our platforms of choice follow these rules. The largest walled gardens of the “social” web do not necessarily have incentives to implement ActivityPub. Nearly all of them were built, and grew to mastodonic sizes upon a foundation of closed walls.
But, as I’ve recently discovered, the times are changing.
Last year, The Verge asked if ActivityPub can save the internet and wrote:
“Right now, if you’ve encountered ActivityPub on the web, it’s almost certainly because you’ve used Mastodon. The app — essentially a federated Twitter clone — has been around since 2016 and has used ActivityPub as its primary protocol since 2017.”The Verge
And it was indeed Mastodon — following the Xtwitter takeover — that became the figurehead of the new, open, social web. (That’s a lot of adjectives, but the road is long and so it goes.) But, as we find ourselves at the start of a new year, there are signs that we’re nearing a true watershed moment for ActivityPub.
Yes, the established platforms within the fediverse are growing. But, a more important leading indicator for future success, is probably that the big players are entering the game. Meta, with their Xtwitter competitor, recently started testing fediverse interoperability. Founder-owner Mark Zuckerberg wrote:
“Starting a test where posts from Thread accounts will be available on Mastodon and other services that use the ActivityPub protocol. Making Threads interoperable will give more people more choice over how they interact and it will help content reach more people. I’m pretty optimistic about this.”Mark Zuckerberg
And not long after Threads began experimenting with fediverse integration, Tom Coates wrote a lengthy article on how Threads intend to integrate with the fediverse.
WordPress, the content platform of choice for nearly half of all websites, confirmed their dedication to the fediverse when they acquired the ActivityPub plugin less than a year ago. That’s a cool few hundred million websites that can potentially plugin, add to, and start reaping the network benefits of the fediverse.
Ben Werdmuller argues that all of this is enough signal to media organisations that they need to join the fediverse. And I’m inclined to agree. As momentum is building, the user base of potential eyeballs keeps growing.
And what’s more enticing to a publisher than a platform-agnostic follower base? One where reach is not entirely at the whims of whoever’s in the hot seat at whichever walled garden?
But what does all this actually mean for me, anyways?
That’s why I’m happy you’re the one reading this. Because you’re the kind of person asking the important questions.
I’ve already touched upon this, but the fediverse comes with two huge benefits for you:
Follow and interact with anyone from anywhere
Regardless of where you choose to camp — be that a Mastodon instance with its twitter-like experience, a Youtube-inspired Peertube instance, a picture centric Pixelfed instance or an instance from BookWyrm centred around, you guessed it, books — you can follow, be followed by and interact with anyone else, everywhere else in the fediverse.
That’s the benefit of open gardens. And it’s pretty huge.
But I’d argue that the logical inverse of this is true revolution.
Set up shop anywhere you’d like
The true benefit of an open protocol is that it is, indeed, open. That means anyone can join. There are already thousands of instances, or platforms that let you participate in the fediverse.
But what if you want to be your own boss?
What if you don’t want to be beholden to the policies of whoever’s in charge of the instance you choose to sign up for?
If you want to truly take control of the content you create?
Then you set up your own fediverse instance. And you let people follow you, like your content, and have conversations with you — from wherever in the fediverse they reside. Not too dissimilar to how people can navigate to your website, and interact with your content there.
In fact, it is exactly like that, except that they do it from their favourite fediverse instance. Because, remember, ActivityPub is a protocol for how we can interact with each other across websites that adopt the protocol.
A protocol that allows every person, company, NGO, brand or whatever they might identify as to build a following. On the open web. Free from having to worry about building a dependency to big tech megalomaniacs and whatever else.
That’s a web I want to be a part of.
Not so much because of the brands. But because of true openness, transparency, and the possibility of it becoming something more genuine, more valuable; more human than an algorithm optimised for engagement.
Proof of concept
Naturally, I put my money where my mouth is. Or, in this case, my content where my heart is.
I’ve been experimenting with the ActivityPub plugin on this site for a little while. And a few hiccups aside, it works exactly as you’d expect. You can follow Lars-Christian.com from any fediverse account. If you do, you’ll get all posts and notes directly into your timeline.
Pretty cool, right?
But wait, that’s not all. What really got me hooked is that the plugin, with its most recent release, provides full federation — replies included. That means that if you follow me, see something interesting and decide to reply, your reply will be shown “in the fediverse” (from wherever someone is viewing the discussion), but also as a comment on this blog.
And I can continue the discussion by responding to your interesting reply merely by posting a comment right from this website. The comment in response to your reply will be fully federated, meaning you will be tagged and see it in your timeline, and everyone else coming across the discussion can see it too. We can even bring other users into the discussion by mentioning them, using the fediverse syntax “@user @instance”.
Discussions can be had, and discovered, across apps and websites and platforms. Jared White calls this a “migration from computer networks to person networks” in a piece where he talks about what the future of the fediverse might look like.
Needless to say, I’m excited about that future. Sure, there’s still much to do before we’re even close to mainstream adoption. We need to find out how to make following accounts and instances from across the web easier. And preferably interact with “anything” from anywhere.
Maybe the solution is in the browser? Or maybe not. We’ll see. All I know is that a lot of smart people are working on reducing friction, and improving the user experience of partaking in the fediverse.
And, what’s more, the fediverse is already brimming with awesome people who are making great content. Content that feels genuine, and that’s fostering a sense of true connection that I haven’t experienced since before the big tech social networks took center stage.
I hope you’ll join us.