Days after Meta launched its new app, Threads, this month, a software engineer at the company named Ben Savage introduced himself to a developer group from the World Wide Web Consortium, a web standards body. The group, which maintains a protocol for connecting social networks called ActivityPub, had been preparing for this moment for months, ever since the first rumors that Meta was planning to join the standard. Now that moment had arrived. “I’m really interested to see how this interoperable future plays out!” He wrote.
Warm replies to Savage’s email trickled in. And then another comment came:
“The company you work for does disgusting things, among other things. It damages relationships and isolates people. It builds walls and lures people into them. If that’s not enough, ruthless peer pressure will… That said, welcome to the list, Ben.’
Meta’s embrace of ActivityPub, used by apps including the Twitter-like Mastodon, would no doubt be a little awkward. The constellation of small apps and personal servers currently using the protocol, known as the Fediverse, is characterized by an ethos of sharing and openness, not for profit or user bases running into the billions.
ActivityPub is designed to allow users of different apps not only to communicate and view each other’s content, but also to move their digital identities from one service to another. Mastodon, the largest app in the Fediverse, is open source and run by a non-profit organization, and smaller Fediverse apps like PeerTube and Lemmy are often held up as a rejection of the closed nature of services like YouTube or Reddit. Companies like Meta are usually considered the enemy. No surprise that despite calls from ActivityPub leaders for courtesy when Meta arrived on the listserv, some couldn’t keep their mouths shut.
Weeks old Threads already dwarfs Fediverse, which has been around for over a decade and recently peaked with about 4 million active monthly users. Some Fediverse fans see this imbalance as a victory: Suddenly the network could become many times more relevant. Others view that view as naive, expecting the size of Meta to push the small world of apps built on ActivityPub in undesirable directions. Some have circulated a pact to preemptively prevent content from Threads’ servers from appearing on its own.
“The Fediverse community has moved — because of fear and aversion to Meta, as well as excitement,” said Dmitri Zagidulin, a developer who leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group responsible for discussing the future of ActivityPub. The prospect of Meta joining the decentralized movement has people trying to spice up their projects and prepare for the spotlight. “There are furious meetings. Grants are being applied for. Pull requests. Pushes for better security, better user experience. Better everything,” he says.
Zagidulin itself is a member of a Mastodon server that operates as a social cooperative, where users collectively make important decisions. They recently voted on whether or not to preemptively block Threads, a process known as defederation. The result: 51 percent for, 49 percent against.
That gap reflects different visions of the future of the Fediverse. One is embracing Threads to kick-start the network’s stagnant growth. The ideals of openness and giving users more control didn’t entice many people to join platforms like Mastodon until Elon Musk’s chaotic takeover of Twitter sent many longtime users looking for new digital homes. Even then, the bump quickly broke down. Some users gave up after finding federation tools confusing compared to Twitter. Then along came Bluesky, a competitor backed by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey that echoes many of the same principles but is developing a rival decentralized protocol to ActivityPub.
Amidst those challenges, Meta’s interest dangles in the potential of the company’s vast resources and reach to revitalize the Fediverse movement. “This is a clear victory for our cause,” Eugen Rochko, CEO of Mastodon, wrote in a blog post the day Threads launched.
Others just want Meta gone. For Fediverse users like Vanta Black, community leaders’ warm response to Meta’s interest felt like a betrayal. In 2017, as she navigated her gender identity, she found a home in small Mastodon communities where moderators and users mingled and held shared values for filtering hateful posts. She fears that the arrival of millions of Threads users will unleash masses of content on the Fediverse that are impossible to manage.