I feel a bit like the gopher in Disney’s The Lion King providing a report to the hornbill Zazu, “Sir! News from the underground!”
Daily we’re receiving a barrage of news about generative AI in the legal field. But there’s another tech arena that is also currently experiencing rapid development: the Fediverse. Compared to generative AI, the Fediverse is the underground, and it’s changing so fast that I’ve had to rethink this article several times while writing it.
I spend a lot of time on Mastodon, perhaps one of the most well-known platforms within the current Fediverse, which had over 10 million registered users as of March 2023.1 Approximately 294,000 people joined over the weekend preceding July 4th, according to Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s founder, CEO, and lead developer.2 On July 7, 2023, he posted, “Mastodon went from 1.2M active users last week to 1.8M active users this week. That's not 70M users overnight, but it's something!”3
There have been three major waves of people flocking to Mastodon since Elon Musk took over Twitter. I joined in November 2022 as part of the initial wave. The latest wave was inspired by Twitter throttling the number of tweets unverified users could read per day to 600, as well as a Reddit protest over new charges for third-party apps.4,5
People have become tired of social media platforms being run by private corporations that invade users’ privacy and make unpopular changes based more on their shareholders’ desires than on what users want or need. It’s user content that builds these platforms.
Mastodon is built on a social networking protocol called ActivityPub.6 Because ActivityPub is open source and decentralized, anyone can use it to build a social networking platform. And use it, they are! Aside from Mastodon, the following platforms have been built using ActivityPub:
Bookwyrm – a social book-sharing service (similar to Goodreads) - https://bookwyrm.social/
Pixelfed – a social photo-sharing service (similar to Instagram) - https://pixelfed.org/
Lemmy and Kbin – news aggregators and discussion forums (similar to Reddit) - https://join-lemmy.org/ - https://kbin.social/
PeerTube – a video streaming service (similar to YouTube) - https://joinpeertube.org/en_US
Friendica – a decentralized social network (similar to Facebook) - https://friendi.ca/
In addition, established platforms such as WordPress, Mozilla, Medium, Flipboard, and the Vivaldi web browser are integrating their services with platforms using ActivityPub.
A key feature of ActivityPub is that any platform built on it can communicate with any other platform that uses it. This interoperability is what makes it part of the Fediverse, a portmanteau of “federation” and “universe.”7 That means I can use my Mastodon account to access content from other ActivityPub platforms. It also means that I can follow folks who are signed up through other ActivityPub services and vice versa. Someone on Pixelfed can follow me on Mastodon without having a Mastodon account.
This is a HUGE because it means people in the Fediverse are no longer stuck within the silo of a private social network, afraid to leave because their friends and followers aren’t available on another network.
The latest big news within the Fediverse that Eugen Rochko alluded to in his comment, “That’s not 70M users overnight, but it’s something!”, is that Meta (formerly Facebook) has announced that its new microblogging service, Threads, will be adding support for ActivityPub in the near future. Once it does, anyone with a Threads account (now over 100 million users) should be able to communicate with other ActivityPub platforms. (You can sign up for Threads if you have an Instagram account.)
Whether Meta will add ActivityPub support to Threads or not is a major point of discussion among those I follow on Mastodon. If it does, the Fediverse will expand exponentially. Meta may also stay ahead of the ire of regulators. According to Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow in Chokepoint Capitalism, “Mandated interop[erability] is gaining political momentum, and just in time. In the US, the 2020 ACCESS Act mandates interop for the largest social media companies (it failed but will likely come back) ….”8
As the Fediverse expands, social media will finally become as interoperable as email and will no longer feel like the underground.
For more information on ActivityPub and the Fediverse, check out this article: [Popular Science] How ActivityPub is setting the stage to weave all your social media feeds together, July 12, 2023, accessed July 14, 2023: https://www.popsci.com/technology/activitypub-fediverse/
The following sources were used for this article:
(1) [IT World Canada] Mastodon passes the 10 million account milestone, March 19, 2023, accessed July 14, 2023: https://www.itworldcanada.com/article/mastodon-passes-the-10-million-account-milestone/533720
(2) Eugen Rochko, Mastodon post, July 3, 2023: https://mastodon.social/@Gargron/110651189724634163
(3) Eugen Rochko, Mastodon post, July 7, 2023: https://mastodon.social/@Gargron/110675497622690306
(4) [Engadget] Twitter puts strict cap on how many tweets users can read each day, July 1, 2023, accessed July 14, 2023: https://www.engadget.com/twitter-puts-strict-cap-on-how-many-tweets-users-can-read-each-day-182623928.html
(5) [The Verge] How Reddit crushed the biggest protest in its history, June 30, 2023, accessed July 14, 2023: https://www.theverge.com/23779477/reddit-protest-blackouts-crushed
(6) [Wikipedia] ActivityPub, accessed July 14, 2023: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ActivityPub
(7) [Wikipedia] Fediverse, accessed July 14, 2023: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fediverse
(8) Giblin, Rebecca and Cory Doctorow, Chokepoint Capitalism, Beacon Press, Boston, 2022, pg. 204. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/710957/chokepoint-capitalism-by-cory-doctorow-and-rebecca-giblin/