Social Media/The Fediverse Could Save The Social Web

The Fediverse Could Save The Social Web

Tawanda
Tawanda Munongo Software Engineer Fri Feb 09 2024 | 25 min read
The Fediverse Could Save The Social Web

Introduction

I used to get so excited about new social media platforms. The first time I heard about the diaspora social network in mid-2012, a supposed Facebook killer, I joined the waiting list hoping to be one of the very first users on the platform.

Over a decade later, as the biggest new social platform launch was happening, I felt absolutely no need to join the Threads hype train. Over the intervening years, I had grown weary of the seemingly never-ending cycle of joining a new platform, trying to build a presence there, and inevitably losing interest after a few months of yelling into the abyss.

Against the backdrop of Threads’ monumental rise, a quiet revolution was happening. Threads’ goal, along with other platforms like Mastodon and Misskey, was to capitalize on the absolute shit show that was Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. I left Twitter and sacrificed over a decade of building a presence on the platform because some billionaire woke up one morning and decided to make the so-called online town square his personal plaything.

It would be easy to portray that as the straw that broke the camel’s back, but along with many other reasons I will outline here, it was already quite evident that we need a new model of social media. Such a new model would allow users to own their online presence and not have their connections, content, and, for some, livelihoods, beholden to the whims of a few people. So, if you will let me, I would like to convince you to ditch the walled gardens for the Fediverse, not just because that’s what all the kids are doing, but because it will be good for you.

YouTuber or Video Content Creator

Recently, I watched an interesting YouTube video by Tom Nicholas exploring the current trend of YouTube creators holding their lav mics. The main subject of the video aside, I got hung up on his exploration of how he struggles to find the right response whenever he’s asked what he does for a living. This is something that I have seen other creators on the platform grapple with, too.

I understand why some creators feel uneasy about describing themselves as “YouTubers”. Aside from the baggage the term carries - some people are dismissive of YouTubers - the term conveys a sense of being tied to the platform. For many good reasons, no one wants to have their identity and content invariably linked to a platform. What happens when the platform decides that you have violated their terms of service and bans or demonetizes your content or institutes a new policy on ad-blockers that threatens to cause a mass exodus (not really, we’re not exactly swimming in options)? Remember that time in 2022 when OnlyFans woke up and decided to ban NSFW content (before quickly backtracking) - these things happen.

Today, we use social media mostly inside so-called “walled gardens” - platforms owned by Big Tech companies that lock you in and make it costly to leave. If you have spent countless hours building up a following on some platform, curating your feed, and structuring your content to create a narrative (something that I have seen on Instagram with people using individual posts to make a large collage on their profiles), leaving is almost like abandoning a piece of yourself. If you do decide to take the plunge and leave, good luck convincing your followers to tag along. Most people don’t want to have to keep track of 15 different accounts and apps on their phones, which means that you will inevitably lose a massive chunk of your following.

“When you sign up to Facebook, you sign up for Facebook’s rules, Facebook’s aesthetic, Facebook’s features, Facebook’s moderation, Facebook’s algorithm, and Facebook’s business model.” David Pierce, The Verge

When you pick a platform, you’re signing up for all the quirks and details that come with it. As The Verge’s David Pierce puts it, joining Facebook means signing up for “Facebook’s rules, Facebook’s aesthetic, Facebook’s features, Facebook’s moderation, Facebook’s algorithm, and Facebook’s business model”. There is no middle way, and this all-or-nothing situation is why, for example, some people are forced to soldier on using platforms that they hate because they have already invested too much and the cost of leaving is too high.

This same lack of choice exists on messaging platforms, with Apple being the biggest perpetrator. They have gone above and beyond to create a sense of otherness for non-Apple users with their green iMessage chat bubbles. They have also shown their determination to maintain their grip on the messaging platform through their ongoing game of whack-a-mole with Beeper over their attempts to bring the service to Android. In many places where SMS still rules, iMessage is preferred for its security. By actively blocking Apple users from securely messaging their Android counterparts, Apple is exposing their users (whom they claim to be trying to protect) to the risk associated with using non-encrypted messaging. Even if one argued that the green bubbles signal a warning about unsecured SMS communication, they’ll persist even after Apple introduces RCS support to iMessage later this year.

What all these platforms rely on, presently, is the network effect - the idea that the value of a service increases with the number of people using the service. You could go out there and build the best social platform ever, but no one will use it if their friends, family, or favourite creators are not there. In the end, we are all chained to the most widely used platforms, whether we like them or not.

Why is that a Problem?

You might be reading this and wondering why any of this is a problem. You would be right to assume that, given the resources at their disposal, the biggest tech companies will inevitably build the best products. Who cares if Apple locks us into iMessage if iMessage is the best messaging service available on their platform? Right?

For many people who worked on the foundations of the Internet, the goal was to build an open system that would democratize information. It was about openness. Yet, the Internet cannot achieve openness or ensure equal opportunity and information access when it is dominated by a few self-serving entities. The internet can’t be truly open as long as the walled gardens exist.

The Big Tech Problem

There has been much debate about social media platforms lately, most of it focused on the increasingly polarized political and social landscape in many Western countries. When Elon Musk decided to buy Twitter, he declared that his goal was to get the platform out from under the control of sufferers of the “woke mind virus”. He believed that content moderation on the platform was leaning too far left, and he wanted to make the platform more ”free and open”. Whether or not he has succeeded in that regard is beside the point, but what has become abundantly clear is that as he has aligned himself with those on one end of the political spectrum, he has alienated those on the opposite end. Many liberals have jumped ship from Twitter, which makes real discourse on the platform very difficult.

Not everyone has left Twitter, however. Even as the platform has become increasingly hostile and toxic, some people have invested too much time and effort in building a presence there to just quit. Leaving would mean uprooting oneself and migrating to a new walled garden that could just as easily fall under the control of another opinionated billionaire with a possible saviour complex.

Similarly, YouTube is another platform that has been criticized, sometimes for doing too much, and other times for not doing enough. As an educational resource, YouTube has been undeniably revolutionary. Yet, their policies, especially concerning historical and political content, can be very limiting and vague. YouTube’s automated moderation can sometimes demonetize videos for using certain words with little regard for the context in which they are used, discouraging creators from speaking openly about these subjects.

A brief examination of the relationship dynamics between YouTube and its creators swiftly reveals who holds all the cards. YouTube’s market share for long-form video content has become such that leaving the platform as a video content creator would be stupid. Unless you are a Twitch streamer, good luck convincing people to jump ship and pay for your alternative service (I’m looking at you, Nebula). For most creators, especially those committed to making long content, this has become problematic as the platform continues to push shorts to compete with TikTok. These creators are forced to either adapt to a format whose unique characteristics impose limitations or forge ahead even as their viewership and revenue fall.

My point is that these mega-platforms have the power to exert undue influence on what can and cannot be discussed on the Internet. I say internet here because in many parts of the world, especially the global south, social media is the internet. Most people in these parts of the world get everything through Facebook because of partnerships between the company and local ISPs to provide, for example, Facebook-only data bundles. And, while the most ardent supporter of these platforms will tell you to just build a competing platform (because “free market, duh”), in reality, the network effect makes it effectively impossible for most but the 1% of people with tens of millions of loyal followers, e.g. Trump and Truth Social. At least, that was the case before ActivityPub and the birth of the Fediverse.

Lots to Learn from the Web and Email

Before we dive into that, I want to show you that this is far from being a new and revolutionary idea.

We can do so many things with technology that we take for granted. Many of these things are only possible because groups of people sat down and decided to set a standard with which everyone could work. We see it as fairly obvious that we should be able to text or call our friends who use a different mobile network or email those who use a different email provider. You don’t need an Outlook account to email an Outlook user. You don’t even need to use the Outlook app to open your Outlook emails!

Walled gardens go against the fundamental ideas on which the web was built. For as long as it has existed, the web has been governed by standards and protocols that allow interoperability. From the Internet Protocol (IP) to Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Simple Messaging Transfer Protocol (SMTP), these standards are all around us. These standards offer a grammar for how certain actions can be expressed across different platforms, such as sending an email or the scripting language that makes web pages interactive. Yet, even in the early days, there were signs that big companies, if given the opportunity, would try to undermine these ideas.

Most of us give little thought to the fact that we can download any browser and open a web page, and it will load correctly, but things almost didn’t happen this way. I spoke in my post Why JavaScript Won about a point when, before JavaScript was standardized into ECMAScript, Microsoft had a version of the scripting language called JScript. As a way to push their Internet Explorer browser, they made their implementation just different enough to make cross-compatibility poor. The result was a host of websites with a “best viewed in Internet Explorer/Netscape” badge, depending on which version of the language they used. This invariably pushed developers to favour JScript for broader website accessibility given that Microsoft could push Explorer to anyone using Windows. Fortunately, the standardization of JavaScript nipped this in the bud, and hopefully, the rise of ActivityPub will have the same effect on the social media landscape.

The Solution

I bailed on the bird platform before things got truly crazy, which is why it will always be Twitter to me. While I was a big fan of the microblogging platform - it was the only social network I used - nothing out there seemed like a worthwhile replacement. It took me years to reach a point where I felt at home on Twitter. I followed accounts whose posts I found interesting and had amassed many followers who occasionally interacted with my posts. The thought of starting that process again on a new platform didn’t excite me. I had heard about Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter, but it wasn’t until recently that I became intrigued enough to explore its primary appeal.

Mastodon is one of the most popular members of a group of services that make up what is known as the Fediverse. These are a group of federated social networks mostly built on the ActivityPub protocol.

ActivityPub and Federation

So, what does it mean for a social network to be ”federated”? Put simply, these social networks are interoperable. They allow anyone with the technical know-how to host an instance (basically a server) of the site. For example, when you first open Mastodon you will be prompted to join mastodon.social. This is just one of many instances of the social network. These instances can be hosted by anyone from academic institutions to activists and hobbyists. Each instance has unique rules and regulations set by whoever is running it. The selling point is that these instances can all communicate, albeit with some imperfections as the standard is still relatively in its infancy.

Branches of the Fediverse

The grand vision for ActivityPub, or any other similar protocols (there are a few competitors), is to have a set of independent nodes scattered across the globe, all speaking a common language. The concept is so compelling that even Meta, a company that theoretically stands to lose much from such a transition, has already started integrating ActivityPub into their Threads app. Within a year, as promised by Instagram head Adam Mosseri, Threads will be fully cross-compatible with other Fediverse applications.

The Case for Federation

The Open Web

In my view, the main selling point is the re-democratisation of the internet. Since its inception, many organizations have fought to keep the Internet free and open. When we talk about a free and open internet, we mean one where netizens have equal opportunities to share and access information. A closed internet based on corporate walled gardens is the antithesis of this.

Despite the illusion of being free and open, the internet today is far from it. While anyone can post and access, for example, YouTube, the platforms exert control over what can and cannot be shared on their platform. These terms of service may be optional, but as we all congregate on a handful of platforms, we’re left with little choice as to whether or not to accept them. Creators, especially, have little leverage in negotiations given these platforms’ dominance in their respective categories.

Continuing with YouTube as our case study, we must clarify that their dominance is not solely the result of building a superior product. Make no mistake, with the wealth of talent and resources at their disposal, it would be foolish to question the quality of their product. However, platforms today rely on the network effect as much as they do on quality engineering. Once a platform reaches a critical mass of users, it becomes difficult for anyone else to compete. That is why Elon Musk was willing to pay a premium for an unprofitable company with a bloated workforce and bot infestation with the sole intention of completely re-branding it. It’s not enough to have a product that is just as good. You must be able to convince users to abandon what they are already familiar with.

When it comes down to it, only the most wildly popular figures can make users flock to a platform. The rest of us don’t have that kind of pull. The result of this is a kind of homogenization of voices. To thrive on YouTube, one must accept the inevitable YouTube-isation of their content as they slowly evolve to please the algorithm. If you can’t do that, your videos will either wallow in obscurity or end up on the wrong side of YouTube’s terms of service. In the latter case, good luck convincing people to sign up to Odyssey or Nebula just for your content.

Greater Content Reach

The federation of the social web will create a best-of-both-worlds scenario for internet users. The web was at its most open in the early days when anyone who knew a bit of HTML and CSS could build and publish a website. However, not everyone could code, and even if you could, your content had to be compelling enough to convince people to visit your site or, if you had an RSS feed, to subscribe to that. Essentially, anyone could publish anything, but reaching people was harder.

In the next phase of the internet, it was much easier to reach people because we all congregated on the same handful of platforms. Anyone could publish content without technical knowledge and, if their content was good enough, they could build a following. But, we all had to follow any rules and regulations put forth by the platform, which meant having limitations on the kind of content we could share.

The federated web will allow us to publish content that can reach more people without being constrained to the handful of platforms that everyone else uses. This will also benefit companies, which explains Mark Zuckerberg’s support for the federated web.

Over the years, social media platforms have evolved into little kingdoms, each with a unique brand of humour, content, and themes. Some users out there would never migrate, let’s say, from Twitter to Facebook because they would feel so out of place there. That doesn’t mean, however, that such a person could never find one or two things they might like on Facebook. It just wouldn’t be enough to convince them to sign up. If, however, they could access this content from a different platform at no cost, then why not? Building this infrastructure for interoperability will allow Meta to reach users that they probably could never have had access to because they disliked one or many of the company’s platforms.

Pro Competition

This, of course, will make the social media landscape competitive again. That’s not to say that it isn’t at the moment - TikTok, Meta, and YouTube have been engaged in a juggernaut battle for user attention for years. However, once you take away the network effect, public perception of a platform and/or its content, and the lock-in effect of walled garden platforms, what’s left is just the race to build the best product. Plus, it opens up the door for the little guy. Mastodon had been operating for almost five years before Musk’s Twitter circus provided the platform with an opening to gain some relevance. And, even then, Threads came along and blew them out of the water in terms of user count within hours. The reality of the social media landscape right now is that a small start-up just cannot come in and challenge the giants.

Even if a handful of users decided they wanted to support a new up-start social platform, they would soon find themselves bored if there was no content. You can have the best tech, the best UI, and the best features, but we all know that users are what make or break a platform, especially content-creating users. If your platform has no content, then why should anyone use it? The Fediverse changes that by having a pool of content ready and waiting for a new service to tap into. In this world, a new app can start a grassroots movement, reaching out to users who may like whatever niche features they are offering whilst still allowing them to access the same content as they did before. Wouldn’t that be something?

Users own their online presence

This means that users would own their online presence. If you are going to invest countless hours into planning, creating content, and establishing a connection with your fan base, then you better own every aspect of that. Under the current model, building a social media presence is no different from building a house on someone else’s land.

In his interview with The Verge, Mark Zuckerberg explored how he believes that we are at a point where people are starting to feel less comfortable being locked into a platform. We have seen the consequences of people entrusting their livelihoods to platforms, allowing them to own all their connections and produced content whilst reserving the right to take it all away as they wish. As more people become full-time content creators, social media marketers, etc., they will need to feel more secure in their investment.

In an ideal world, content creators would fully own their followers, content, comments, and view counts on a platform. They’d have control over everything they’ve built, enabling them to relocate if the platform no longer aligns with their goals. Crucially, their audience could seamlessly connect with them on any new platform without any extra effort.

The Global Governance Problem

The idea behind the global governance problem is that it is impossible to outline a set of rules to which billions of people can agree, but it is much easier to do for smaller groups. It has become increasingly clear that social platforms are beginning to baulk under the weight of their growth. Moderation across billions of people globally from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds speaking hundreds of languages is, in practice, impossible. Case in point, Meta is being sued by the Rohingya people of Myanmar over the 2017 atrocities that were, in part, fueled by disinformation that was spread on Facebook and led to tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displacements. In response, Meta acknowledged that Facebook was partly to blame and that they could have done more to stop the platform “from being used to foment division and incite offline violence”.

This is not an example of willful negligence by Big Tech companies in policing their platforms but an example of how difficult it can be to appease and monitor an ever-growing user base. Twitter, for example, had a Trust and Safety Council, an advisory group that focused on finding ways for the platform to combat hate, harassment, and other harms. This group consisted of volunteers, most of whom grew up within a particular moral and ethical context. This team constantly found themselves facing the ire of the public over decisions such as removing Donald Trump. What hope, then, is there for one person to become the sole arbiter of what can and cannot be said on such massive platforms?

This does not mean, however, that each ActivityPub instance can be a nation unto itself, with any or no rules and regulations. The ActivityPub standard has built-in mechanisms that, for example, allow entire instances to be blocked should they become a breeding ground for trolls and/or abusers. This does create some incentives for instance managers to moderate their spaces, lest their branch be cut off from the rest of the tree.

It’s not all rosy

As it stands, we are still in that phase of the technology where everything is just “x but federated”. A similar thing happened with crypto where developers built decentralised versions of apps whose only claim to fame was being on the blockchain. We saw how that turned out. As the ActivityPub protocol evolves and improves and people figure out new and innovative uses for it, we will end up with new and exciting products. For now, however, the best we can get is duplicates of existing apps that only stand out because they are part of the Fediverse.

While this is not a bad thing, history has shown this is insufficient to convince people to migrate. We’ve witnessed it in the online privacy movement, where numerous individuals, myself included, have highlighted the risks associated with the current web model. These concerns revolve around the advertising-driven structure of the modern web, extensive user data collection practices, and pervasive tracking methods across online platforms. These warnings have changed little, proving that most people don’t care about such technical details. Most people want a service that satisfies their needs, ideally without asking them to pay. Convincing people to move to federated platforms to start over just because of ”federation” without offering any additional value will be difficult.

As I was working on this, The Verge released an article detailing a significant data breach at Spoutible, another recent Twitter alternative. While Spoutible isn’t federated, it prompted me to consider security vulnerabilities in some ActivityPub instances. Even major tech platforms invest heavily in robust infrastructure yet remain susceptible to exploits. Consequently, as the barriers to entry in the social media sphere are lowered, so too may the standards, potentially leading to a landscape filled with inexperienced or apathetic operators who neglect user protection.

With that in mind, the current tech giants could remain the dominant players in the Fediverse. Setting up and managing a server is no trivial task, especially as the user base grows. Big Tech companies already possess the manpower, expertise, and experience that will give them a leg up over the competition. The only difference will be that rather than owning the pond outright, they would be the largest fish in a shared pond, with users retaining the freedom to choose.

Exciting Times Ahead

Overall, I am optimistic about the future of social media. There is some recognition within the tech space that the current model alienates users. No one likes to feel as powerless as some people do today in the face of platforms on which we are so reliant, but to whom each of us is nothing more than a data point on a chart.

Users today do not own their online presence and connections - some company does, and they can easily take it all away. The promise of the Fediverse, just like crypto, lies in decentralisation and the chance for users to reclaim ownership. While its success remains uncertain, the value proposition suggests a brighter future than the crypto revolution. The fediverse offers users much more control, and it will be interesting to see how it all pans out.

The Fediverse is not promising a complete deviation from what is familiar. It seems, at least to me, like the natural progression of things. No other industry has the level of walled gardenism and control over the user as the tech industry does. Just as we don’t use the same mobile operator to communicate or the same bank to move money, we shouldn’t all need to use the same apps to communicate. Vendor lock-in has allowed tech companies to completely disregard their users because we don’t have real alternatives. The fediverse will empower users by forcing platforms to do better. That, I think, will be a positive for everyone.

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About Me

I'm a fullstack developer focused on building digital experiences that harness the power of cutting-edge web and cloud technologies. My primary area of focus is building backend systems with a proficiency in TypeScript, Java, Go, and PHP.

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