It’s not vertical video or algorithmic feeds driven by AI that are the hottest thing on social media. It’s actually a years-old, little-known protocol called ActivityPub, which could rewire social media.
Since the beginning of this year, many tech companies, including Flipboard, Medium and Mozilla have been working on ActivityPub and Meta are also involved. Now there’s an official WordPress plugin for ActivityPub. This will enable the protocol to be used by the entire internet at once. ActivityPub is being used by developers to create new and unique takes on YouTube and Instagram. ActivityPub can be found everywhere! ActivityPub!
Mastodon is another platform powered by ActivityPub that’s become a refuge for Twitter Quitters across the web. Ask around in the tech world, and you’ll find a growing number of people that believe the future is not Mastodon, but the scaled ActivityPub social platform it represents.
What is ActivityPub then? It is a technology that allows social networks to be interoperable by connecting them all into a single social network and sharing system. It’s a standard that dates back to an even older idea of a social network structure. This is more like old-school webchat or email than the current platforms. Open protocols are used, not closed platforms. It’s a way to return control to the users and make sure that social media is bigger than one company.
ActivityPub’s protocol isn’t perfect, and it still needs improvement. It’s possible that the potential of this protocol could be destroyed by bad technology or corporate interests. There will be lots of competition to reinvent social media. Social upstarts such as Artifact, Substack notes, Bluesky, Farcaster and Nostr are all building their closed platforms.
The people who’ve been working on web technology for decades and who’ve seen decentralization energy come and go many times claim that this time it will be different. Steve Teixeira is Mozilla’s chief products officer. He says, “I believe this year could be a breakout year for Fediverse.” It certainly stormed into the market: I had my Mastodon since 2017, but I barely used it until last summer. Mike McCue is the CEO of Flipboard and echoes this sentiment: “I remember the early days of web and ActivityPub’s whole thing is as important as HTML back then.” This is the biggest opportunity for the web I’ve seen since the dawning of the web.
The social web was a market that felt settled for most of the past 15 years. Facebook and Instagram were the winners, Reddit, Snapchat, and all of this was moving towards algorithmic entertainment. TikTok changed the landscape but everything then became TikTok. You’ve been trapped in the closed social networks for years if you want to stay connected with friends and your interests.
The social web was a market that felt settled for most of the past 15 years — until Elon Musk purchased Twitter.
Elon Musk then bought Twitter. It had been a mess for years but it was still going along. In many ways, Twitter became the default answer when people asked where they could quickly reach an audience. Musk thought he was saving Twitter, but he actually saved the concept of a social open internet. Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion and then destroyed all the features that people liked about it. Users began looking for alternatives. Developers built products in response to the demand they saw on the market.
The walled garden is torn down
It’s important to know what the vision is for a social future that will be better. Decentralized social networking is a new concept that’s very different from how the internet currently works. Here’s how I would explain it in the simplest terms: To decentralize social media, you must separate the interface of the app from the data. You won’t need to start over every time you join a social app. Your entire following and follower list will come along with you. These things belong on the web and not in an application.
Email is a good example of this new system. It’s based upon open protocols, which many services use, so your contacts will work no matter what email app you choose. Imagine if you had to have an Outlook account for your Outlook colleagues, a Gmail account for your Gmail friends and a Hotmail to contact your aunt Gertrude. That’s how social media works today.
Facebook is a counter-example that’s even more useful. You can only have Facebook friends. The list cannot be exported to another app, nor can you easily follow the same people in a different platform. You can only read or write Facebook posts on Facebook. If you are in charge of Facebook this is a great situation. It’s the reason Facebook has been able to generate so much revenue for almost two decades. Platform lock-in was always the most lucrative strategy.
If our social system were decentralized, I would be able see and comment on a photo you posted on Instagram. Your friends can read your tweets on their TikTok apps. You could only use Telegram to read my posts, while I exclusively use Tumblr. You would still have the same followers and accounts, regardless of which app you used. Social graphs and product markets would separate completely. There would no longer be “Twitter friends” or “Facebook Friends”.
Christine Lemmer Webber, co-editor of the ActivityPub standards, says: “We had a vision of a peer-to-peer Internet.” “But, at the very minimum, if there is a server failure, it shouldn’t be catastrophic for you.” Your social life shouldn’t depend on an app or a company remaining solvent, she says. It could and should be so much more.
The old vision is a new one
It is impossible to overstate the age of this idea. ActivityPub is a standard that has been finalized since 2018, but the roots of this idea go back as far as web itself. Evan Prodromou is another co-editor of the ActivityPub standards. “I’ve spent over 15 years working on protocols for distributed social networks!” he says. He ran StatusNet, an open-source initiative, and its flagship product Identi.ca for years. It was aimed at being… essentially a decentralized Twitter. He’s excited to see that these protocols are finally taking off. “I think there’s a lot opportunity in this area, and I believe that a number of people are looking at and seeing that opportunity.”
Prodromou says that over the years there have been many protocols designed to open certain parts of social networks. OStatus; pump.io; Open Social; Pubsubhubbub; WebFinger; ActivityStreams; XMPP; RSS; OpenID. You’ve probably never heard of many of these. Prodromou was involved in many of them. Even some of the largest tech companies have worked on the protocols at different times. “Remember Google Buzz?” Prodromou asks. It was compatible with OStatus which was great. (Buzz was launched and shut down in less than two years.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), also known as the web’s governing authority, is responsible for overseeing standards like these. Since the 1990s, “social on web” groups have worked on this. In 2008, Marc Andreessen talked up the launch of OpenSocial. He wrote that “openness will always overwhelm anyone’s attempts to wall off proprietary worlds with tight controls and harsh limitations.” But it didn’t work.
In July 2014, the “Social Web Working Group” was formed with the explicit purpose of figuring out how to federate social networking.
The group debated and fought for three and a quarter years. Lemmer Webber says that at one point, it looked as if we would run out of time, and ActivityPub might not happen. But, when the group concluded in February 2018, they delivered several new ideas to the W3C. ActivityPub was among them.