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Fediverse & the Threads debate

IFM_ Fediverse
As per the latest report, Threads is all set to receive Twitter-like direct message feature

After ChatGPT, 2023 saw one more disruption in the tech sector, as Meta launched its new app, Threads.

While the Threads app has features similar to its rival Twitter, thus making the latter’s boss Elon Musk call the product a ‘copycat’ one, Meta’s innovation has been an overwhelming success.

After topping over 100 million users within a few days of its launch, Threads has already achieved one-fifth of the weekly active user base of Twitter and 86 times the weekly active user base of the largest Twitter rival in the United States named ‘Truth Social’, which, till the mid-week of July 2023, had a weekly active user base of one million, stated the latest analysis of the app intelligence firm data.ai.

Threads has achieved over 150 million downloads (going by the July 17 data of data.ai) and rising further. The download rate is 5.5 times faster than Niantic’s Pokémon GO, which had held the record for the largest app launch title since its July 2016 debut.

As per the latest report, Threads is all set to receive Twitter-like direct message features. The app has also got major iOS revamps like the ‘follows’ tab on the activity feed and translations. However, Threads is envisioning itself to be compatible with a decentralized, open social networking protocol. Posts made on Threads will be accessible from other apps too.

Meta has announced working with ActivityPub, a protocol that is used by decentralised networks like Mastodon. The Zuckerberg-led platform has also been referencing ‘fediverse’, a term that pops up in Threads’ supplement terms on signing up for the platform.

What is Fediverse?

The term Fediverse, derived from Federation and Universe, is built on open-source technological standards and supports interoperability across social media platforms. Decentralization is the core operating principle of Fediverse.

Platforms and individuals can host their own servers and independently manage them in Fediverse. Server owners can choose what they want to post or share with the Fediverse community.

For example, a Gmail user can send an email and interact with an Outlook user, as the email services rely on interoperable protocols like IMAP, POP, and SMTP. Similarly, in the Fediverse network, the popular protocol is ActivityPub.

Let’s discuss ActivityPub

What is common between Tumblr, Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, and Meta? All these tech giants are working with ActivityPub, to accelerate the creation of the ‘Fediverse’. ActivityPub has an official WordPress plug-in, which will enable the protocol for something like half the internet all at once. Developers are using ActivityPub to build new and different takes on YouTube, Instagram, and much more, as per a report from The Verge.

“And, of course, there’s Mastodon, the ActivityPub–powered platform that has become a haven to Twitter Quitters all over the internet. But ask around the tech industry, and there’s a growing set of people who will tell you the future isn’t Mastodon but what it represents: a scaled ActivityPub-based social platform,” the article commented further.

As Twitter has been floundering since Elon Musk’s takeover in 2022, Mastodon recently overhauled its Android app, thus bringing in features like ‘Material You Redesign’. Google’s design language for Android, along with tab bars, settings, a compose screen, and more.

Mastodon now has a monthly active user base of 1.4 million. However, the same ratio was at 2.5 million last year, when people were quitting Twitter after Musk took over the micro-blogging platform’s ownership. As of July 2023, posting activities on Mastodon have tripled.

Coming back to ActivityPub, the technology is currently making social media networks interoperable, connecting everything from a single social graph to a content-sharing system. The principle behind it has been derived from old-school solutions like web chat and email, but the old-school is now making waves, as open protocols are now giving social media’s control back to users.

Artifact and Substack Notes are building their own closed platforms, while Bluesky, Farcaster, Nostr, and others are building their own open protocols in order to decentralize social networking entirely.

“To decentralize social networking is to completely separate the user interface from the underlying data. Any time you sign up for a new social app, you won’t have to rebuild your audience or re-find all your friends; your whole following and followers list come with you. Those things should be part of the internet, not part of an app,” The Verge noted.

“If our current social system was decentralized, you’d be able to post a picture on Instagram and I could see it and comment on it in the Twitter app. Your friends could read your tweets in their TikTok app. I could exclusively use Tumblr, and you could read all my posts on Telegram. Different apps would have different strengths and weaknesses, different moderation policies and creator tools, but you’d have the same set of followers and follow the same accounts no matter which platform you use. There would be no such thing as ‘Facebook friends’ and ‘Twitter followers.’ The social graph and the product market would split completely,” it stated further.

Mastodon has been using ActivityPub as its primary protocol since 2017. Flipboard has set up a Mastodon server at flipboard.social and is inviting its users and curators to post there, in addition to on the main platform. Medium did the same. Flipboard is also supporting Mastodon inside of its app, thanks to ActivityPub. If someone likes a post on Flipboard that comes from ActivityPub, it will also show up on the content creator’s Mastodon app. The same goes for comments. It’s the best case study for an interoperable social media network as of now.

But, please hold your horses

Mastodon CEO Eugen Rochko has welcomed Threads’ intention to become part of the decentralised social web by using the same standard ‘ActivityPub’ protocol. One might agree with Rochko’s point of view and believe that Meta coming on board is the best thing that has happened to the Fediverse, but the reality may be a bit different.

We have reported about a small group of Mastodon instances threatening to “defederate” from Threads if it joins the fediverse, which in plain words suggests that the Threads users may not be included in the fediverse.

“Mastodon, the largest app in the Fediverse, is open source and run by a non-profit, 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,” news portal Wired observed.

“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 pre-emptively block content from Threads’ servers from appearing on their own,” it added further.

“The Fediverse community has been jolted into motion—due to fear and loathing of Meta, and also excitement,” told Dmitri Zagidulin, a developer who leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group responsible for discussing the future of ActivityPub.

“There are furious meetings. Grants being applied for. Pull requests. Pushes for better security, and better user experience. Better everything,” he added further.

Zagidulin is an integral part of the Mastodon server that operates as a social cooperative, where users decide major decisions on a collective voting basis. These members held a vote on whether to pre-emptively start ‘defederation’. The result was 51:49 in favour of the move.

On one hand, Meta wants to use its resources and brand value to inject new life into the Fediverse movement; on the other hand, Fediverse users like Vanta Black are not happy with it.

“In 2017, as she (Vanta Black) 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,” the Wired report remarked.

Black has now launched the “Anti-Meta FediPact,” a pledge for Fediverse communities to defederate from the social media company’s future offerings. Black cited Meta’s content moderation policies and its role in human rights abuses and global conflicts, while justifying her tirade against Meta. For her, Fediverse leadership’s hunger for business growth is conflicting with Fediverse’s ‘intimate’ community value.

Sections of the Fediverse family are unhappy with Meta coming onboard, when it comes to the latter’s content moderation policies and its role in human rights abuses and global conflicts. Meta will have to be careful, in terms of allowing Threads users to integrate with other Fediverse servers, as the tech giant needs to respect the Fediverse’s ‘intimate’ community value.

Meta’s leadership will also have to decide the categories of Threads content that will be broadcast out into the Fediverse, including the ads.

“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, but so far it has a good relationship and open dialogue with other Fediverse developers. A giant for-profit corporation might not manage to do the same,” observed Wired.

Also, Meta has a history of briefly embracing an interoperable messaging protocol titled ‘XMPP’, only to abandon it later. So Meta’s goal to inject new life into the Fediverse movement requires full commitment from the Zuckerberg-led tech giant. Also, Threads is not available in Europe due to the European Union’s new Digital Markets Act. The act also doesn’t have provisions on Fediverse-like data interoperability.

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