The Media Today

What is the ‘fediverse,’ and why does Meta want to join it?

January 25, 2024
The Meta Facebook Instagram Threads web application is seen in this illustration photo in Warsaw, Poland on 26 August, 2023. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via AP)

Last July, Meta launched a new social network called Threads as a spinoff from Instagram and a thinly veiled competitor to X, then (just about) still known as Twitter. In the days following the launch, I wrote about my initial impressions of the app (so-so but with some promising signs), and also did a Q&A with my colleague Jon Allsop about what it was like to use the new service and whether I thought it would last. According to Mark Zuckerberg, Meta’s founder and CEO, the new app had two million sign-ups in less than two hours, and hit thirty million within a day of launch; it then hit fifty million, then a hundred million, making it one of the fastest-growing new apps ever. (Elon Musk, the owner of X, responded by challenging Zuckerberg to a “literal dick measuring contest.”) Some of that early enthusiasm seemed to ebb, however: while the app is now estimated to have a hundred and sixty million monthly users, Business Insider reported in August that its daily user base had fallen by more than 80 percent, to eight million.

Twitter/X fans searching for an alternative amid that app’s slow-motion implosion are undoubtedly among the millions who signed up for Threads, seeking a new home for their conversations. But Meta promised that its new service wouldn’t just be another real-time chat service; indeed, when Threads launched, Adam Mosseri, the executive in charge of both Instagram and Threads, said that the new app would soon add the ability to integrate with the “fediverse”—a term that refers to a loosely affiliated collection of services, sites, and apps that all use open-source standards, giving users more control over how they use social media (allowing them, for instance, to move their account from one server to another that follows different rules) and how their data is handled. The most well-known Twitter-like app in the fediverse is Mastodon, which I wrote about in 2022. There are also fediverse versions of Instagram (Pixelfed) and YouTube (PeerTube), as well as Twitter alternatives such as Nostr, which counts Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, as a supporter. Dorsey also helped launch BlueSky, a platform that was itself mooted as a possible Twitter replacement and which has its own federation standard known as the AT protocol.

Mosseri said that Meta originally planned to launch Threads with fediverse support built in thanks to a protocol called ActivityPub, which powers many open-source social apps (including Mastodon), but that the team behind Threads couldn’t get the protocol working in time. However, Mosseri assured users that the company was committed to embracing open standards, and that support for ActivityPub would be coming soon. “If you’re wondering why this matters, here’s a reason,” he wrote. “You may one day end up leaving Threads, or, hopefully not, end up de-platformed. If that ever happens, you should be able to take your audience with you to another server. Being open can enable that.”

To say that this commitment was greeted with widespread skepticism would be an understatement: Meta has made promises about opening up its platform in the past, and the reality has almost always fallen short. In this case, however, the company put some money where its mouth is. Last month, it rolled out a test of data interoperability with Mastodon; Mosseri announced that users could follow several Meta staffers, including Zuckerberg, on Mastodon and then see Threads posts from these staffers in a Mastodon client. The implementation seemed to go off without a hitch; within twenty-four hours, Mosseri’s account was the third most-followed on Mastodon. Zuckerberg said that making Threads interoperable “will give people more choice over how they interact,” adding that he is “pretty optimistic” about the idea of Meta’s integration.

If Zuckerberg is a fan of the idea, many inhabitants of the fediverse are not. Even before Threads launched, rumors circulated that the new service might try to integrate with the fediverse and a number of users fumed, vowing to block it. (As I wrote for CJR in 2022, Mastodon, for instance, allows any user to set up their own server and set their own rules, and then “defederate” or block any other servers that they don’t like, including some populated by journalists). Not long after Threads launched, Wired reported that a software engineer from Meta had introduced himself by email to a group of developers from the World Wide Web Consortium, which maintains the open-source ActivityPub protocol, and told them that he was excited to see how Threads would be able to integrate with the protocol. Some replies were cautiously welcoming. But others on the email didn’t sugar-coat their distaste for Meta and everything it stands for. One message read: “The company you work for does disgusting things. It harms relationships and isolates people. It builds walls and lures people into them. When that doesn’t suffice, brutal peer pressure does.”

And, while users of the fediverse may be passionate about its open-source model, after a decade or more of existence, it remains comparatively tiny. Within hours of its launch, Threads already had more users than all of the fediverse apps, whose collective estimated user base is around fifteen million. Not surprisingly, perhaps, some fediverse fans are afraid that the Threads elephant could wind up squashing their beloved community.  

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Despite such antagonism toward Meta and its plans, however, not everyone is opposed to the impending arrival of Threads in the fediverse. Earlier this month, Tom Coates, a technologist who has done work with ActivityPub and other open-source standards, wrote that he had attended an invitation-only meeting with high-level Meta staffers and other representatives of the open-source community to discuss how best to go about integrating Threads with ActivityPub (and the attendant challenges of crossposting, moderation, following, blocking, and other key aspects of managing the network). Going in, Coates wondered to what extent Meta’s project would be “an integration rather than a colonization.” He continues to have questions and concerns about what Meta is doing—but after talking about its plans with some of those involved, he believes that the Meta staffers working on the integration are “decent people, trying to build something they’re excited by,” and that they want to be “respectful and careful about how they do it.”

Assuming Coates is right, and Meta is sincere about integrating with the fediverse in a mutually respectful way, the question remains: why? The company has made billions of dollars developing a proprietary platform (Facebook) and controlling everything that happens within it; why bother integrating with a chaotic open-source platform whose standards Meta can’t control? Coates has a couple of theories. One is that Meta is concerned about antitrust regulation and is trying to appear as open as possible—while still exerting control over user data. Another theory is more personal: that Zuckerberg “hates Elon and is just doing everything he can to destroy Twitter.” Embracing an open-source alternative might be one way to do that.

Coates says that he heard another, even more interesting, theory from two different sources, one in the open-source community and one who works for a tech company: that the idea of federating Threads with open-source apps like Mastodon using ActivityPub came up at a Meta hack day—a company-wide event during which staffers suggest new projects to work on—and that it was proposed by none other than Zuckerberg himself. “I have no idea if that’s true,” Coates writes, “but it’s certainly interesting and it would explain a lot of the enthusiasm for the venture” among senior Meta staff. Coates also notes that Zuckerberg has a history of attending open-source gatherings and has likely been familiar with ActivityPub for some time.

Meanwhile, Richard MacManus, the founder of ReadWriteWeb, an early tech-blogging site, isn’t surprised that Meta chose ActivityPub and not a different protocol such as the one BlueSky is promoting, because the ActivityPub standard “perfectly suits Meta’s goals.” The standard gives each server the ability to manage a user’s identity and data, whereas other protocols require servers to pass control of a user’s identity and data to a central server or expect this data to be encoded on a blockchain. This means that, after Threads integrates with ActivityPub, Meta will continue to control the user information of anyone who connects to the fediverse using a Threads server. MacManus writes that this structure “plays right into Meta’s strengths,” since controlling access to user data is the core of the company’s business.

It seems that Meta is indeed sincere about integrating with the fediverse. Whether it’s doing so because Zuckerberg believes in open standards or because it’s a stick with which to beat Musk is less clear. (X still has about ten times as many users as Threads). It’s also unclear whether Meta wants to integrate with the fediverse or dominate it—and whether it might accidentally do the latter even if it intends the former. How the fediverse deals with the arrival of an aggressive giant also remains to be seen. Open-source initiatives have been co-opted by huge corporate platforms many times before, and likely will be again. And Meta’s track record in the area doesn’t fill many fediverse fans with confidence.

Other notable stories:

  • This week, Motaz Azaiza, a Palestinian journalist who gained millions of followers on social media for his unvarnished coverage of Israel’s assault on Gaza, announced that he was leaving the territory and evacuating to Qatar. “I’m sorry, but inshallah, hopefully soon I’ll come back and help to build Gaza again,” he said, in a video message posted to Instagram. Elsewhere, the executive board of the International Press Institute urged Israel to stop killing journalists in Gaza, and accused the country of an “unprecedented attack on journalist safety and press freedom.” And Frontline’s Ramita Navai, who is out with a new documentary about Israel’s “second front” in the West Bank, spoke about the importance of that story to the present moment and the challenges of reporting it.
  • Following this week’s mass layoffs at the LA Times, Justin Ray, who used to work for the paper (and for CJR), writes for the San Francisco Chronicle about one of the biggest takeaways: “that even large news outlets can’t avoid the economic reality that news is dying and that journalists of color likely will be hurt the most.” In other media-business news, Adweek’s Mark Stenberg reports that the digital-media company G/O Media is looking to offload the outlets it owns individually, after failing to sell them as a package. And staffers at the Texas Tribune—a leading nonprofit outlet that itself cut staff last year—moved to form a union; the Washington Post’s Laura Wagner has more details.
  • In media-jobs news, NPR appointed Katherine Maher as its new CEO, succeeding John Lansing; Maher—who previously ran the Wikimedia Foundation, which owns Wikipedia—has never worked in journalism and represents “an embrace of a generational shift” at the broadcaster, its media reporter David Folkenflik writes. Elsewhere, Bloomberg Businessweek tapped Brad Stone as its new editor. And The Daily Show announced that Jon Stewart, its longtime former host, will return on Monday nights to cover the 2024 election; he’ll start next month.
  • The Texas Observer’s Jason Buch reports on a consequential ruling in a case brought by Priscilla Villarreal, a citizen journalist (also known as “La Gordiloca”) who sued officials in Laredo after she was arrested in 2017 for asking a source for information in supposed violation of a state law against the “misuse” of official information. This week, a federal appeals court not only ruled against Villarreal but endorsed “an expansive view of government power that permits police to arrest reporters,” Buch writes.
  • And Paul Choate—a Colorado man who made national news last week after he stole hundreds of newspapers over a story alleging that a seventeen-year-old was raped at the home of a local police chief—has spoken out about his motives. The thefts sparked speculation that someone close to the suspects in the rape case might be to blame, but Choate told the Durango Herald that he acted out of concern for the victim’s privacy.

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Correction: A previous version of this article included some inaccurate information about the Twitter alternative Nostr

Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.