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Meta’s Threads Could Make—or Break—the Fediverse

Jul 18, 2023 7:00 AM

Meta’s Threads Could Make—or Break—the Fediverse

Meta promised to make Threads compatible with the decentralized protocol underlying Mastodon. Proponents of interoperable social media can’t agree whether to welcome or fear it.

Illustration of a quilt of the fediverse with a huge Meta logo patched on

Illustration: Jacqui VanLiew

Days after Meta launched its new app, Threads, this month, a software engineer at the company named Ben Savage introduced himself to a developer group at the World Wide Web Consortium, a web standards body. The group, which maintains a protocol for connecting social networks called ActivityPub, had been preparing for this moment for months, ever since rumors first emerged that Meta planned to join the standard. Now, that moment had arrived. “I'm really interested to see how this interoperable future plays out!” he wrote.

Warm replies to Savage’s email filtered in. And then came another response:

“The company you work for does disgusting things among others. It harms relationships and isolates people. It builds walls and lures people into them. When that doesn't suffice, brutal peer pressure does … That said, welcome to the list, Ben.”

Meta’s embrace of ActivityPub, used by apps including the Twitter-like Mastodon, was bound to be a little awkward. The constellation of small apps and personal servers that currently use the protocol, known as the Fediverse, is marked by an ethos of sharing and openness, not profit-seeking or user bases denominated in the billions.

ActivityPub is designed to allow users of different apps to not only interact and view each others’ content, but also move their digital identity from one service to another. Mastodon, the largest app in the Fediverse, is open source and run by a nonprofit, and smaller Fediverse apps like PeerTube and Lemmy are often held up as a repudiation of the closed nature of services such as YouTube or Reddit. Corporations like Meta are typically held up as the enemy. No surprise that, despite appeals from ActivityPub leaders for civility when Meta arrived on the listserv, some couldn’t hold their tongue.

Weeks-old Threads already dwarfs the Fediverse, which has been around for more than a decade and recently peaked at about 4 million active monthly users. Some Fediverse fans see that imbalance as a win: Suddenly, the network could become many times more relevant. Others consider that view naive and expect Meta’s size to push the small world of apps built on ActivityPub in undesirable directions. Some have circulated a pact to preemptively block content from Threads’ servers from appearing on their own.

“The Fediverse community has been jolted into motion—due to fear and loathing of Meta, and also excitement,” says Dmitri Zagidulin, a developer who leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group responsible for discussing the future of ActivityPub. The prospect of Meta joining the decentralized movement has people trying to spiff up their projects and prepare for the spotlight. “There are furious meetings. Grants being applied for. Pull requests. Pushes for better security, better user experience. Better everything,” he says.

Zagidulin is himself a member of a Mastodon server that operates as a social cooperative, where users collectively decide major decisions. They recently held a vote on whether to preemptively block Threads, a process known as defederation. The result: 51 percent in favor, 49 percent against.

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That divide reflects different visions for the Fediverse’s future. One involves embracing Threads to bootstrap the network’s stagnant growth. The ideals of openness and giving users more control didn’t tempt many people to join platforms like Mastodon until Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter sent many longtime users looking for new digital homes. Even then, the bump quickly went bust. Some users gave up after finding federation tools confusing compared to Twitter. Then came Bluesky, a competitor supported by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey that reflects many of the same principles but is developing a rival decentralized protocol to ActivityPub.

Amidst those challenges, Meta’s interest dangles the potential of the company’s vast resources and reach to inject new life into the Fediverse movement. “This is a clear victory for our cause,” wrote Eugen Rochko, CEO of Mastodon, in a blog post on the day Threads launched.

Others simply want Meta out. To Fediverse users like Vanta Black, the warm response from community leaders to Meta’s interest felt like betrayal. In 2017, as she navigated her gender identity, she found a home in small Mastodon communities where moderators and users intermingled and held shared values for how to filter out hateful posts. She fears the arrival of millions of Threads users will unleash volumes of content into the Fediverse that are impossible to manage.

This spring, after rumors that Meta was planning a project that would integrate with ActivityPub, Black launched the “Anti-Meta FediPact,” a pledge for Fediverse communities to defederate from the company’s future offering. So far, the pact has been signed by a few hundred admins, most representing smaller Fediverse groups. Others are having similar debates to Zagidulin’s group, part of a lively discussion about whether members of an “open” ecosystem should preemptively block new participants.

Black points out that there’s precedent: a collective effort in 2019 to block the far-right social network Gab after it began using Mastodon’s software. The effort was considered broadly successful at blocking Gab content from filtering into the Fediverse. Meta’s content moderation policies, as well as its role in human rights abuses and global conflicts, Black argues, put it in the same must-block bucket. She sees the hunger for growth expressed by some Fediverse leaders conflicting with what’s best for the community. “Success for the Fediverse to me is retaining what makes it the Fediverse now,” she says.

Johannes Ernst, a member of the W3C’s ActivityPub group, says he can sympathize with those who wish to defederate for reasons of personal safety. But at the same time, he can’t help but feel that attracting Meta realizes an elusive dream for the open protocol.

The Fediverse’s small size can feel intimate—but also isolating for people who want to connect with family and friends not interested in the arcana of distributed online services, or who want to build new Fediverse services to serve large user bases. Suddenly, rather than trying to build a network from scratch, they will potentially have access to more than a hundred million users. “It’s an entirely different conversation,” he says.

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How Meta decides to implement ActivityPub in Threads will help determine the outcome of what could be the Fediverse’s big bang. “It’s not plug-and-play,” says Ernst. The company will have to choose how closely to allow Threads users to integrate with other Fediverse servers. That includes deciding how easily users can migrate their accounts and networks to other services, and whether to provide support such as tools that redirect followers to a user’s new home. Meta’s leaders will also have to decide what kinds of Threads content will be broadcast out into the Fediverse—including, potentially, the role of ads—and how users outside of Threads will be able to see or interact with it on their own platforms. Meta did not respond to a request for comment.

Given that Threads could at a stroke represent the majority of Fediverse users and content, those choices will be deeply felt by existing users of decentralized apps. And anyone building a Fediverse app could find themselves essentially forced to optimize sharing content with Threads users. Mastodon plays a similar role on the network right now because of its large relative size, Ernst says, but so far it has a good relationship and open dialog with other Fediverse developers. A giant for-profit corporation might not manage to do the same.

Meta executives told staffers last week that ActivityPub integration “is a long way off,” according to The Verge. There’s a history of large platforms being quick to announce their interest in the protocol but slower to implement any integration, Zagidulin says, pointing to Tumblr’s as-yet-unrealized announcement last year of ActivityPub integration. Meta itself has a fickle history with open protocols. A decade ago, the company briefly embraced XMPP, an interoperable messaging protocol, along with competitors like Microsoft. But the effort was quickly abandoned.

But conditions are different now. Government officials mulling how to regulate large tech platforms today often turn to the idea of requiring interoperability, says Georgios Petropoulos, a researcher at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. Threads is not currently available in Europe, due at least in part to uncertainties related to the EU’s new Digital Markets Act and other regulations—especially rules related to how Threads user data will interact with data on other platforms, Petropoulos believes. The new EU rules also contain provisions on interoperability that are still being hashed out.

It’s logical, Petropoulos says, for Meta to work with a protocol that’s partly managed by W3C, a respectable global standards organization, and that has already attracted other mainstream platforms like Tumblr. But it’s too soon to know how seriously the Facebook parent will take interoperability.

In the meantime, users like Zagidulin and Black are already taking action in response to just the specter of Meta’s integration into—or engulfment of—the Fediverse.

Zagidulin’s co-op server is planning more votes to determine how exactly to proceed. With the community evenly split, he says, one scenario would be to split the community across two servers—one that communicates with Meta’s empire and one that doesn’t. Black isn’t so optimistic about managing the divide. “I’d prefer the status quo, rather than two castles where one is sunny and one is dark,” she says.

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Gregory Barber is a staff writer at WIRED covering energy and the environment. He graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and English literature and now lives in San Francisco.
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