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Meta topics can make or break the Fediverse

Days after meta launched its new app, Threads, this month a software engineer at the company named Ben Savage presented to a group of developers at the World Wide Web Consortium, the web standards body. The group behind the social networking protocol called ActivityPub has been preparing for this moment for months since the first rumors that Meta planned to join the standard surfaced. Now that moment has arrived. “I’m really excited to see how this interoperable future develops!” he wrote.

Warm responses to Savage’s email poured in. And then came another answer:

“The company you work for does disgusting things among others. It damages relationships and isolates people. He builds walls and lures people into them. If that’s not enough, there’s brutal peer pressure… Welcome to the list though, Ben.”

Meta’s embrace of ActivityPub, which is used by apps including the Twitter-like Mastodon, must have been a bit awkward. The constellation of small programs and personal servers that currently use the protocol known as Fediverse is characterized by an ethos of sharing and openness, rather than the pursuit of profit or user bases numbering in the billions.

ActivityPub is designed to allow users of different apps to not only interact and view each other’s content, but also to move their digital identity from one service to another. Mastodon, the largest app on Fediverse, is open source and run by a non-profit organization, while smaller Fediverse apps like PeerTube and Lemmy are often seen as breaking from the closed-mindedness of services like YouTube or Reddit. Corporations like Meta are commonly referred to as enemies. Unsurprisingly, despite ActivityPub leaders’ calls for civility, when Meta appeared on the listserv, some couldn’t keep their mouths shut.

Weekly Threads already surpasses Fediverse, which has been around for more than a decade and recently peaked at around 4 million monthly active users. Some Fediverse fans see this imbalance as a victory: suddenly the network can become many times more relevant. Others see this view as naïve and expect Meta’s size to push the small world of ActivityPub-based apps in unwanted directions. Some have shared an agreement to preemptively block content from the Threads servers from appearing on their own.

“The Fediverse community has moved — out of fear and hatred of Meta, as well as excitement,” says Dmitry Zagidulin, a developer who leads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) group responsible for discussing ActivityPub’s future. The prospect of Meta joining the decentralized movement has people scrambling to improve their projects and prepare for them. “There are stormy meetings. Applications for grants. Pull requests. Drives better security, better user experience. Everything is better,” he says.

Zagidulin himself is a member of the Mastodon server, which works as a social cooperative where users collectively make important decisions. They recently held a vote on whether to preemptively block Threads, a process known as defederation. The result: for 51 percent, against 49 percent.

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