MERELY DAYS POST the launch of Threads, Meta’s latest app, Ben Savage, a software engineer from the tech giant, unveiled his association with a developer group within the World Wide Web Consortium, an authority setting web standards. The group, which oversees ActivityPub, a protocol facilitating connection between social networks, had been on its toes for months, anticipating Meta’s collaboration with the standard. Savage expressed his keenness, saying, “I’m really eager to witness this interoperable future unfold!”
His message was followed by an influx of warm welcomes, punctuated by a less friendly response: “The company you are part of indulges in appalling activities, among other things. It deteriorates relationships and induces isolation. It builds walls, luring people into them. If that’s not enough, brutal peer pressure does the job… Nonetheless, welcome to the list, Ben.”
Meta’s decision to utilize ActivityPub, a tool adopted by apps like Mastodon (a Twitter equivalent), was bound to stir controversy. The Fediverse, a cluster of small apps and personal servers employing the protocol, is rooted in an ethos of community and openness, as opposed to the profit-driven and billion-user-based model of corporations like Meta.
ActivityPub’s aim is to empower users of varying apps to not only interact and view each other’s content, but also transition their digital identity across services. Major Fediverse apps like Mastodon, PeerTube, and Lemmy are often heralded as a rejection of the closed nature of platforms like YouTube or Reddit, making the arrival of corporations like Meta on the scene contentious. Despite ActivityPub leaders urging decorum with Meta’s debut on the listserv, some couldn’t resist voicing their dissent.
Threads, which is a few weeks old, already outnumbers the decade-old Fediverse that recently reached its peak with around 4 million active monthly users. While some Fediverse enthusiasts view this disparity as an opportunity for the network to multiply its relevance, others deem this optimism naive, fearing that Meta’s dominance may steer the small world of ActivityPub-dependent apps in unfavorable directions. A pact has been circulating to proactively prevent content from Threads’ servers from showing up on their own.
Dmitri Zagidulin, a developer leading the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group tasked with deliberating the future of ActivityPub, reflects on the current sentiment, “The Fediverse community has been stirred into action—fueled by dread and disdain for Meta, but also thrill.” The prospect of Meta joining the decentralized movement has led to a flurry of activity to upgrade projects and brace for the spotlight. “There’s a frenzy of meetings. Grant applications. Pull requests. A rush for enhanced security, user experience. Better everything,” Zagidulin adds.
Zagidulin himself belongs to a Mastodon server operating as a social cooperative where users collectively make major decisions. Recently, they conducted a vote on whether to proactively block Threads, a procedure known as defederation. The result was a tight split with 51 percent in favor and 49 percent against.
This divide mirrors the divergent visions for the future of the Fediverse. One anticipates an embrace of Threads to revive the stagnant growth of the network. The principles of openness and increased user control didn’t allure many to platforms like Mastodon until Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover of Twitter compelled users to seek alternative digital habitats. However, this influx was short-lived. Some users retreated, finding federation tools puzzling compared to Twitter. This was soon followed by the emergence of Bluesky, a competitor backed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, espousing many of the same principles but developing a decentralized protocol to rival ActivityPub.
Against these challenges, Meta’s interest offers the allure of leveraging the company’s vast resources and reach to breathe new life into the Fediverse movement. “This is a clear victory for our cause,” penned Eugen Rochko, CEO of Mastodon, in a blog post on the day Threads was launched.
Others, however, vehemently want Meta expelled. For Fediverse users like Vanta Black, the cordial reception of community leaders to Meta’s interest feels like a betrayal. In 2017, she found solace in small Mastodon communities as she grappled with her gender identity, where moderators and users interacted and upheld shared values on filtering out hateful posts. She fears that an influx of Threads users will flood the Fediverse with unmanageable content.
In response to whispers of Meta’s project to integrate with ActivityPub, Black initiated the “Anti-Meta FediPact” this spring, a vow for Fediverse communities to defederate from Meta’s forthcoming offering. Thus far, it has garnered signatures from a few hundred admins, predominantly representing smaller Fediverse groups. Others, like Zagidulin’s group, are engaged in similar debates about whether to block new members from an “open” ecosystem.
Black cites a past instance as justification: a communal endeavor in 2019 to block Gab, a far-right social network, post its adoption of Mastodon’s software. The movement succeeded in preventing Gab content from permeating the Fediverse. Meta’s content moderation policies, as well as its involvement in human rights violations and global conflicts, Black argues, merit blocking it. She sees the thirst for expansion exhibited by some Fediverse leaders as contradicting what’s best for the community. “For the Fediverse to be successful, it must retain its current essence,” she asserts.
Johannes Ernst, a member of the W3C’s ActivityPub group, empathizes with those choosing to defederate for personal safety reasons. Yet, he can’t help but perceive Meta’s involvement as the realization of a long-held dream for the open protocol.
The Fediverse’s small size offers a sense of intimacy, but it can also feel isolating for those who desire connections with friends and family uninterested in the intricacies of decentralized online services, or those who aspire to develop new Fediverse services for large user bases. Suddenly, instead of laboring to build a network from scratch, they may have access to more than a hundred million users. “It’s a completely different conversation,” he notes.
Meta’s application of ActivityPub in Threads will significantly influence what could be the Fediverse’s pivotal moment. “It’s not plug-and-play,” says Ernst. Meta will have to decide the extent of integration between Threads users and other Fediverse servers, including the ease with which users can transfer their accounts and networks to other services, and whether to offer support such as tools redirecting followers to a user’s new home. Meta’s leaders will also have to determine what type of Threads content will be transmitted into the Fediverse, potentially including the role of ads, and how users outside Threads will be able to view or interact with it on their platforms. Meta remained silent when asked for comment.
With Threads poised to represent the majority of Fediverse users and content, these choices will significantly impact current users of decentralized apps. Any Fediverse app developer might find themselves effectively compelled to optimize sharing content with Threads users. Mastodon currently plays a similar role due to its relative size, Ernst notes, but maintains a healthy rapport and open dialog with other Fediverse developers. A behemoth profit-driven corporation might struggle to maintain a similar dynamic.
Meta executives informed staff last week that ActivityPub integration “is a long way off,” according to The Verge. Past examples suggest large platforms often express enthusiasm for the protocol but drag their feet in implementing any integration, says Zagid