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ActivityPub: The Decentralized Future of Social Networking?

James Huang | 2023.07.08

A look at ActivityPub, a 10-year-old protocol that could revolutionize social networking by making platforms interoperable and governed by open protocols. With several tech companies investing in ActivityPub and Mastodon becoming a popular alternative to closed social platforms, could decentralization be the future of social networking? This article explores the potential of ActivityPub and its aim to give control back to users while making the social web bigger than any single company.

The technology industry is buzzing with a new standard for social networking that is more open, user-centric, and potentially more powerful than Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. But we have been here before.

The current hot topic in social networking is not vertical video or AI-driven algorithmic feeds. Instead, it is a little-known 10-year-old protocol called ActivityPub that could help rewire the entire social fabric of the internet. In recent months, several tech companies have invested in ActivityPub and what is now known as “the Fediverse.” Tumblr, Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, and even Meta (Threads) are working with ActivityPub. An official WordPress plug-in for ActivityPub is now available, which will enable the protocol for approximately half of the internet all at once. Developers are using ActivityPub to create new and different takes on YouTube, Instagram, and more.

And, of course, there is Mastodon, the ActivityPub-powered platform that has become a haven for Twitter quitters worldwide. So, what is ActivityPub? It is a technology that makes social networks interoperable, connecting everything to a single social graph and content-sharing system. It is an old standard based on even older ideas about a fundamentally different structure for social networking, one that is much more like email or old-school web chat than any of the platforms we use today. It is governed by open protocols, not closed platforms. It aims to give control back to users and make sure that the social web is bigger than any single company.

For most of the last 15 years, the social web has felt like a settled market. Facebook and Instagram won, Reddit and Snapchat were around, and everything was shifting towards algorithmic entertainment anyway. TikTok’s explosion changed the landscape, but then everything turned into TikTok anyway. If you want to use the internet to keep up with your friends and interests, you have been **stuck inside the walled gardens** of closed social platforms for a long time. And then Elon Musk bought Twitter. For years, it had been kind of a mess but chugging along—in many ways, the default answer to lots of questions about where to quickly reach an audience. Musk thought he could save Twitter, but it turns out he may have saved the idea of an open social internet instead. When Musk spent $44 billion to acquire Twitter and then systematically destroyed everything people loved about the platform, users went looking for something better. Seeing demand in the market, developers set out to build products to fill it.

Before we go too far, it is helpful to understand what this vision for a better future of social actually is. “Decentralised social networking” is a heady concept and quite different from the way the internet/ social network works now. But here is the simplest way to explain it: to decentralise social networking is to completely separate the user interface from the underlying data. Anytime 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.

Email is the best example of how this system works now: it is based on open protocols that lots of services tap into, so while there are many email apps with different features and quality levels, your contacts carry over and will always work. (Can you imagine if you needed an Outlook address for your Outlook-using colleagues and a Gmail address for your Gmail-using friends, and then a Hotmail account just to talk to your aunt Gertrude? Well, that is currently how social works now.) Facebook is an even more helpful counterexample. Your friends on Facebook are your Facebook friends. You cannot export the list to use it in another app or easily follow all those same people on a separate platform. If you want to read Facebook posts or create your own, you have to do it on Facebook. This is an excellent situation if you happen to be in charge of Facebook, and it is how Facebook became a cash machine for nearly two decades. Platform lock-in has always been the most profitable strategy.

But if our current social system were decentralised, you would 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 in Telegram. Different apps would have different strengths and weaknesses, different moderation policies and creator tools, but you would 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.

If you are a company looking for a new place to hang your social shingle, you could do one of two things: set up a Mastodon account or build your platform that integrates with ActivityPub and thus can interoperate with Mastodon. Many companies are choosing to do both.

Flipboard set up a Mastodon server at flipboard.social and began inviting some of its users and curators to post there, in addition to on the main platform. Medium did the same. Flipboard is also beginning to support Mastodon inside its app, thanks to ActivityPub. But that does not just mean embedding posts on Flipboard pages, like the app used to do with Twitter before its API was cut off. If you like a Flipboard post that comes from ActivityPub, that like appears in the creator’s Mastodon app. If you comment, it shows up as a Mastodon reply. This is not embedded content; it is actual interoperation.

The next steps: own your domain.

Do not be [email protected] or [email protected]  (be like me@james) Have a space that is yours, that belongs to you, a username and identity that cannot disappear just because a company goes out of business or sells to a megalomaniac. If it works, if ActivityPub becomes the underlying infrastructure of the social web, your identity becomes your identity for everything. It is your YouTube channel name, your TikTok username, your Instagram handle, your phone number, and your Twitter @, all in one name.

“If you solve identity with domain names, it makes things easier because it fits the way the web has been for 20 years. On the other hand, no one understands DNS, no one understands how to configure your domain name.” That is why some people are so excited about WordPress’ support for ActivityPub. You might soon be able to turn your personal website into your entire social identity online.

ActivityPub: The Decentralized Future of Social Networking?
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