Why does the fact that I can’t send a message to your LinkedIn account from my Facebook account seem completely normal?
Email doesn’t work like this, nor do SMS messages, and it would be an outrage if Telstra customers couldn’t call Optus customers – yet this is somehow the accepted state of social media.
Over the last few months there has been a hint of change in cyberspace as a nascent interoperability protocol called ActivityPub has begun to gain traction.
In January 2018, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) – the standards organisation that maintains HTML, CSS, and WebAssembly among others – endorsed ActivityPub as the go-to standard for decentralising social networks away from the walled gardens they have become.
ActivityPub is the backbone of the ‘fediverse’, a loose group of independent content hosting and blogging services that can interact with each other with the aim of breaking the stranglehold tech giants currently have on the open web and building new communities outside the walled gardens of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube.
ActivityPub can be broken down into two APIs: one for client/server interaction, and a federated server-to-server protocol.
That second API is the important one because it is designed as a means of communicating – through messages, notifications, and content – between social media platforms.
What does this mean in practice?
Say you use primarily use Twitter but you have close friends who regularly post on Instagram.
Rather than switching between apps, social media platforms on ActivityPub can interact with each other, meaning you can natively see content from Pixelfed (a decentralised image hosting service) directly in your Mastodon (decentralised Twitter) client.
Users can likewise send direct messages to one-another across the different platforms.
For content creators, this would mean no longer having to run accounts on every available social network to maximise reach: a creator on PeerTube (a decentralised video hosting service) can post a video and have it show up on all their followers’ feeds across the fediverse.
The fediverse is, unlike mainstream social media, a collection of dedicated and independent servers with their own community and set of moderation rules. Servers might be dedicated to a particular topic (like cyber security), a geographic location (like Australia), or be general purpose.
Moderators can then choose to limit how much content from other servers in the fediverse they want to see.
Famously, a Mastodon instance for journalists found itself completely shut off from over 200 other servers during a mass migration to Mastodon that happened after Elon Musk took over Twitter last year. Some moderators were concerned that journalists would camp their servers on the hunt for a story.
More organisations are dipping their toes into ActivityPub.
In March, WordPress parent company Automattic acquired a dedicated plugin for ActivityPub that helps connect the blogosphere with the fediverse.
Likewise, Tumblr (also owned by Automattic) is planning support for ActivityPub.
Even Meta, no doubt seeing an opportunity with Musk’s Twitter disaster, has reportedly begun working on its own decentralised social network that would let people login through Instagram, and presumably other Meta accounts, to connect mainstream social media with the niche fediverse.
The example of journalists getting shut off from servers hints at one of the downsides of decentralised social media.
Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama, wrote a piece for Wired last week warning of a conspiratorial, distrusting nature among advocates of decentralisation.
Maddox mentioned Bitcoin/cryptocurrency enthusiasts, whose culture was founded on a deep distrust of financial institutions, alongside fediverse denizens, many of whom fled Twitter for Mastodon because of Elon Musk.
She sees the problem as being an innate sense of distrust fostered in these communities that could see them become echo chambers that lack curiosity about the greater online world.
“Pushing for decentralisation doesn’t make users inherently conspiratorial,” Maddox said.
“But when they decamp to a new platform – even one that is decentralised and purportedly more trustworthy – because they’re wary of the old one, they often bring this distrust-qua-conspiracy with them.”
Exacerbating this distrust is the problem of content moderation and liability.
Could you, for example, be liable for if someone on a server you run said something defamatory?
We’ve seen the Australian High Court rule that news outlets were liable for comments posted on their Facebook pages, and Google has been sued for defamation because its search engine linked to defamatory forum posts – it’s conceivable that liability might extend to individual Mastodon instance operators.
A team from British newspaper the Financial Times cited these legal risks when it shut down a Mastodon instance after a few short months, saying it simply wasn’t worth the hassle.
On top of that, running a server can be expensive in terms of cloud storage, and “necessitates daily backups, layer caching, downtime monitoring, load balancing, and a bunch of techy stuff that probably wouldn’t trouble a person who doesn’t own a social media network,” editor of Financial Times blog Alphaville, Bryce Elder wrote.
Currently, the ‘fediverse’ is also harder to use.
Onboarding requires diving into and considering the moderation ethos behind different servers before deciding where you want to post and what you want to see.
There’s also little in the way of algorithmic feeds – though proponents talk up the possibility of a vast choice between open source algorithms one day – which makes the fediverse less immediately interesting or engaging.
Depending on your view of social media, this isn’t a downside as fediverse platforms aim to mediate interaction between users, rather than drive engagement for the sake of advertising revenue.