A new kind of social network
There’s a new social network in town. It’s called Mastodon.
You might have even heard of it. On the surface, Mastodon feels a lot
like Twitter: you post “toots” up to 500 characters; you follow other
users who say interesting things; you can favorite a toot or re-post it
to your own followers. But Mastodon is different from Twitter in some
fundamental ways. It offers many more ways for users to control the
posts they see. It fosters awareness of the effect your posts have on
others through a content warning system and encourages accessibility
with captioned images. At its core, though, there’s a more fundamental
difference from existing social networks: Mastodon isn’t controlled by a
single corporation. Anyone can operate a Mastodon server, and users on
any server can interact with users on any other Mastodon server.
This decentralized model is called federation. Email is a good analogy
here: I can have a Gmail account and you can have an Outlook account,
but we can still send mail to each other. In the same way, I can have an
account on mastodon.technology, and you can have an account on mastodon.social,
but we can still follow each other, like and re-post each other’s
toots, and @mention each other. Just like Gmail servers know how to talk
to Outlook servers, Mastodon servers know how to talk to other Mastodon
servers (if you hear people talking about a Mastodon “instance”, they
mean server). And just like Gmail and Outlook are controlled by
different corporations, Mastodon servers are owned and operated by many
different people and organizations. If you wanted, you could host your own Mastodon instance!
Why does this matter? It means that Mastodon users have choice about
where they hang out online. If Twitter decides that your posts shouldn’t
be on their platform, they can shut down your account and there’s
nothing you can do about it (or conversely, if they decide your f-ed up
content is totally fine, there’s nothing anyone else can do about it).
On the other hand, if you disagree with the administrators of your
Mastodon instance, you have the choice to move your account to another
instance (switching providers, as it were) or to host your own instance
if you’re willing to dedicate the time and effort.
The federated model also tends to align incentives better than
centralized alternatives. Mastodon instances are usually run and
moderated by members of the community that uses that particular Mastodon
server – for example, I’m part of a community of tech folks over at mastodon.technology,
and our server is administrated and moderated by a member of the
community. He has a vested interest in making mastodon.technology a nice
place to hang out since he hangs out there too. Contrast that with
Twitter: Twitter is owned and operated by a massive, venture-backed,
for-profit corporation. Now, I’m certainly not against companies making
money (more on that later), but Twitter only cares about making Twitter a
nice place to hang out to the extent that they profit by it, which has
led them to make some user-unfriendly choices.
So Mastodon is pretty cool. But that’s not what really gets me excited. I’m excited about how Mastodon servers allow users on different instances to interact. It’s a protocol called ActivityPub, and it’s going to change the way the internet works.
ActivityPub is a social networking protocol. Think of it as a language
that describes social networks: the nouns are users and posts, and the
verbs are like, follow, share, create… ActivityPub gives applications a
shared vocabulary that they can use to communicate with each other. If a
server implements ActivityPub, it can publish posts that any other
server that implements ActivityPub knows how to share, like and reply
to. It can also share, like, or reply to posts from other servers that
speak ActivityPub on behalf of its users.
This is how Mastodon instances let users interact with users on other
instances: because every Mastodon instance implements ActivityPub, one
instance knows how to interpret a post published from another instance,
how to like a post from another instance, how to follow a user from
another instance, etc.
ActivityPub is much bigger than just Mastodon, though. It’s a language
that any application can implement. For example, there’s a YouTube clone
called PeerTube that
also implements ActivityPub. Because it speaks the same language as
Mastodon, a Mastodon user can follow a PeerTube user. If the PeerTube
user posts a new video, it will show up in the Mastodon user’s feed. The
Mastodon user can comment on the PeerTube video directly from Mastodon.
Think about that for a second. Any app that implements ActivityPub
becomes part of a massive social network, one that conserves user choice
and tears down walled gardens. Imagine if you could log into Facebook
and see posts from your friends on Instagram and Twitter, without
needing an Instagram or Twitter account.
So here’s how ActivityPub is going to change the internet:
No more walled gardens
ActivityPub separates content from platform. Posts from one platform propagate to other platforms, and users don’t need to make separate accounts on every platform that they want to use. This has an additional benefit: since your ActivityPub identity (your Mastodon account, your PeerTube account, etc.) is valid across all ActivityPub-compliant applications, it serves as a much stronger identity signal, preventing malicious actors from impersonating you (e.g. creating a Twitter account in your name). If you can share one account across multiple platforms, no one can pretend to be you on those platforms – you are already there!
Social networking comes built-in
With traditional internet media, you need to rely on external services to share your work on social networks. If you want people to share your YouTube video around, you need to post it to Facebook or Twitter. But ActvityPub-enabled applications are social by nature. A PeerTube video can be shared or liked by default by users on Mastodon. A Plume blogger can build an audience on Mastodon or PeerTube without any additional effort since Mastodon and PeerTube users can follow Plume blogs natively. Users on all these platforms see content from the other apps on the platform of their choice. And Mastodon, PeerTube, and Plume are just the beginning – as more platforms begin implementing ActivityPub, the federated network grows exponentially.
Network effects that help users instead of harming them
“Network effects” leaves kind of a dirty taste in my mouth. It’s usually
used as a euphemism for “vendor lock-in”; the reason that Facebook
became such a giant was that everyone needed to be on Facebook to
participate in Facebook’s network. However, ActivityPub flips this
equation on its head. As more platforms become ActivityPub compliant, it
becomes more valuable for platforms implement ActivityPub: more apps
means more users on the federated network, more posts to read and share,
and more choice for users. This network effect discourages vendor lock-in. In the end, the users win.
It’s going to be an uphill battle
I hope I’ve convinced you of the radical impact that ActivityPub could
have on the internet. But there are some significant barriers preventing
widespread adoption. The thorniest one is money.
Why is money an issue? Aren’t Mastodon and PeerTube free and open-source? Well, first of all, open source projects need funding too (that’s a big topic that deserves its own blog post, so I’m leaving it alone for now). The bigger issue right now is user adoption. The ActivityPub network is only viable if people use it, and to compete in any significant way with Facebook and Twitter we need a lot of people to use it. To compete with the big guys, we need big money. We need to be able to spread the word through marketing and blogging, to engineer new ActivityPub applications, and to support people working full-time on bringing about this revolution.
I know this isn’t necessarily a popular view in the open-source world,
but I see funding as a critical priority to bring about the vision that
ActivityPub promises. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how to obtain it.
All the major ActivityPub-compliant applications I’ve written about are open source projects, built and run by volunteers with tiny budgets.
Traditional social networking companies like Twitter and Facebook are
funded by selling advertisements on their platform. But in order to make
any significant revenue from ads, you need a centralized audience whose
attention you control. Facebook needs to be able to say, “we have X
billion users; give us your money and we will show them your ads”. Plus,
the big social companies extract value from their users by segmenting
them based on their behavior and interests, enabling micro-targeted ad
None of that is possible when the users and content are spread across
many servers and platforms. There is no centralized audience to segment
and advertise to. We’ll need to rethink the fundamental business model
of social networking if we want ActivityPub to take off.
That being said, I do think ActivityPub offers tremendous business
value. It turns your corporate blog into a social network by offering
native sharing, following, liking, and replying. And it does so on your
customer’s terms, which not only prevents abusive, spammy content but
also helps your company’s reputation with users and potential customers.
These benefits are valuable, and I think there is a way to turn that
value into funding.
It’s important to think about how to make this revolution happen. ActivityPub has the potential to change the way we think and act on the internet, in a way that encourages decentralization and puts users first again. That’s a vision worth fighting for.