This week on Threads, the new-ish social meta platform launched by Meta, the fediverse started trending.
But, wait. What’s the fediverse? And why does it matter that Threads, a potentially massive platform in Meta’s growing quiver of social media will play a role in the build-out of the fediverse?
And, maybe even more importantly, what does this all have to do with the growth of open, permissionless money? We’ll get to all of that.
First, let’s introduce Threads in case you are not familiar.
So far Threads feels like a newer version of previous social media channels (it kind of feels like a mashup between Twitter and Instagram). The reason for the similarities is Threads was built as a competitor to Twitter following all of the shenanigans on that platform over the past year+, and it was created by the Instagram team. You can even connect your Instagram, use the same credentials, etc.
Since everyone is new to the platform (it only launched over the summer), there is a universal sense of starting over. For some the clean slate is a relief. For others, there is a sense that they are leaving behind a following and a place where they’ve invested years of posting, liking, commenting, etc.
Then Threads started a slow-roll out of fediverse compatibility, which generally feels like a right time/right place kind of announcement. So far, there’s been two distinct reactions on the platform: A nerdy kind of excitement and/or an acknowledgement that no one really knows what the fediverse is, but it all sounds very exciting in a Star Wars sort of way.
Social media and platform risk
If we’ve learned anything over the past several years, it’s that social media is ephemeral. Things come and go. Platforms age and become stale over time. Or else, the owners of the platforms start tweaking things to maximize profits or perpetuate a worldview and the platforms become less inviting or engaging.
The result is that content creators and people trying to build an audience or a following have to move on to a new platform and start all over rebuilding. In the process, they are potentially losing years worth of data and investment of time and resources.
Whether you use the platform formerly known as Twitter, or TikTok or YouTube or whatever, you are faced with platform risk. At anytime your access can be taken away or the terms and conditions of the use of the platform might change in a way that makes it harder to use.
Recently, it feels like platform risk has become more real. We’ve seen weird scenarios play out now a handful of times across some major social media channels.
But rather than looking at social media as a wall-garden, private property approach, what if content creators, brands, and companies had a way to maintain some level of ownership over the information they produce?
The idea that social media can be more of a distributed, decentralize network rather than a single platform controlled by one corporation or narrowly defined terms and conditions, is what the fediverse is all about.
What is the fediverse and why is it important?
If current social media is like the age of the Robber Barrons, where tightly-controlled monopolies make outlandish profits by monopolistic and exploitative tactics, then the fediverse represents the same kind of social, political, and organizational change that all braided together to inspire a move beyond the Gilded Age.
The fediverse is a tech stack that will promote more a level playing field in terms of access to information and put more control of user-generated content back into the hands of the people who actually create it.
Ok, but how is all of this possible?
Structurally, the fediverse is built on a protocol called ActivityPub, which sets the standards and rules needed to make different kinds of social media interoperable. By having an agreed upon architecture like ActivityPub, social media platforms can develop more like nodes on a network instead of like vertical stacks.
ActivityPub coordinates two major functions to enable interoperable social media:
- Client-to-server: this defines how apps or web browsers interact with social media platforms and handle tasks like publishing content or creating profiles.
- Server-to-server: this defines how social media nodes communicate with each other and what kind of information they share. This relates to sharing posts and syncing things like comments and likes across different servers.
The goal of a protocol like ActivityPub is to enable the freedom and independence for individual servers to build social media clients in different ways — reflecting the values of the communities that support the servers. But at the same time, by using a federation model (that’s where the “fedi” in fediverse comes in), the idea is to make a diverse and resilient system that will be stronger and more adaptable than any one centralized platform.
What that means for content creators and people who invest time and energy into their social media presence is that they will have more optionality if they want to move between servers or if they want to attract a wider audience.
One big benefit for people who use social media is that more information will become accessible and available through one login.
You could imagine how this could benefit small businesses or local marketplaces. Rather than have to come up with some kind of omni-channel strategy small businesses can join social media that participates in the fediverse. And marketplaces won't have to be fragmented across multiple sites, so connecting buyers and sellers might be more streamlined.
The fediverse has implications beyond our favorite social media platforms
Creating multiple points of access to social media — all without relying on the same gatekeeper for access, makes sense on a practical level — it gives users more flexibility, freedom, and options.
It will like push social media companies or server providers to compete for users by adding user-centric features or well-designed user experiences.
A move to a federation model might also change the business model of social media. Maybe some servers become ad free or others prevent surveillance and retargeting for advertising, or maybe some allow users to monetize their data in different ways that aren’t so ad-heavy.
Regardless, it will be interesting to move away from the mass social media era and see what comes next.
Undoubtably, there will be challenges of moderation (which is already a challenge for traditional social media with well-defined command and control). It might even be harder to connect with accounts to follow if everyone is all spread out and there’s not an easy means of discover or surfacing relevant content across servers.
What’s maybe most interesting is that the fediverse could be a major step toward decentralizing the internet and moving away from the big box model/corporate control of the internet.
Once people are accustom to moving between servers and handling accounts, data, and info in a decentralized world, it seems like it would be a logical step to have non-custodial wallets paired with accounts and servers would be able to host digital currency payment options, which moves us closer to a world based on permissionless, open money.