Mint Explainer: How Meta’s Threads could boost the rise of a new social internet

Meta launched Threads earlier this year targeting users looking for an alternative to Elon Musk's Twitter, now X. (AP)
Meta launched Threads earlier this year targeting users looking for an alternative to Elon Musk's Twitter, now X. (AP)

Summary

  • The decision of Meta’s Threads to join Fediverse–a network of social media platforms including Mastodon, Pleroma, Pixelfed, GNU Social and PeerTube–has underscored the need for a decentralised social internet that enables users of different platforms to interact with each other

Even as the world is hailing the transformative power of generative AI, or GenAI, for its ability to instantly create new articles, images, presentations, videos, and even write simple code with the help of ‘prompts’ in natural languages like English and Hindi, there’s a silent revolution gaining traction, one that may alter the way the world uses social media networking sites.

The Fediverse, or federated universe, is a network of interconnected social media platforms including Mastodon, Pleroma, Pixelfed, and PeerTube that allows users of different servers to interact with each other.

Each platform, be it a Mastodon server or a Pleroma instance, is hosted on its own server, managed by administrators who set their own rules, moderation policies, and community guidelines. Users on these platforms have their own profiles and identities within their respective instances. But they can follow and interact with users on other instances, as long as those instances support the same protocols.

As an example, a user on a Mastodon instance can follow, reply to, or share posts from a user on a Pleroma instance, as long as both instances support compatible protocols. Users can post content—text, images, videos, etc.—on their instances. This content can be shared across the Fediverse, appearing in the timelines of users following them, irrespective of the instance they’re on.

Is Threads a part of Fediverse?

When Meta launched its new microblogging platform called Threads in July, competing with Elon Musk’s ‘X’ (formerly, Twitter), a Mastodon blog pointed out that the intention of Threads to become a part of the decentralized social web by using the same standard protocol as Mastodon, ActivityPub, was “noteworthy". 

Meta blog confirmed the same, highlighting that “... we are working toward making Threads compatible with the open, interoperable social networks that we believe can shape the future of the internet". 

The aim is to make Threads compatible with ActivityPub–the open social networking protocol established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body responsible for the web’s open standards. Other less popular protocols include OStatus, Diaspora, WebFinger, Zot (developed for use in the Hubzilla platform), and ActivityStreams.

ActivityPub defines a set of rules and methods for creating, updating, and deleting content, as well as for following users, sharing media, and interacting with others across different instances. The move to use ActivityPub would make Threads interoperable with other apps that also support the protocol, such as Mastodon and WordPress, thus allowing new types of connections. 

Meta says its vision is to allow people using compatible apps to be able to follow and interact with people on Threads without having a Threads account, and vice versa. 

For instance, if you have a private profile, you’d be able to approve users on Threads who want to follow you and interact with your content, similar to your experience on Instagram. 

Why did Meta want Threads on a decentralised social network?

According to Meta, the move will also help developers build new types of features and user experiences that can easily plug into other open social networks. “We believe this decentralized approach, similar to the protocols governing email and the web itself, will play an important role in the future of online platforms," said the Meta blog.

By integrating with the Fediverse, Threads can expand its user base and reach users who prefer decentralised social media platforms. However, as Eugen Rochko, CEO of Mastodon, points out, Meta adopted the Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP)–a set of open technologies for instant messaging, presence, multi-party chat, voice and video calls, collaboration, etc.–for its Messenger service a decade ago, following which users of Facebook and Google Talk were able to chat with each other and with people from self-hosted XMPP servers, before each platform was locked down into the silos we know today.

Google Talk was discontinued in 2017 to make way for Hangouts, which was then shut in 2022, following which we now have Google Chat. “What would stop that (discontinuing Meta’s relationship from the Fediverse) from repeating?" asks Rockho. “Well, even if Threads abandoned ActivityPub down the line, where we would end up is exactly where we are now. XMPP did not exist on its own outside of nerd circles, while ActivityPub enjoys the support and brand recognition of Mastodon," he adds.

What are the main advantages of Fediverse?

First, the decentralised nature of the Fediverse means there’s no central authority governing the entire network. If one server goes offline, users on other instances can still interact and access content, promoting redundancy and resilience. Other platforms including Tumblr have shared plans to support the ActivityPub protocol in the future.

Second, interoperability in the Fediverse allows for different decentralised platforms to communicate and interact with each other using shared protocols. For instance, users on different instances (servers running Fediverse platforms) of platforms like Mastodon, Pleroma, or Misskey can follow each other, receive updates, and interact with posts regardless of the specific platform they’re using. Users can share content (posts, images, videos) across different platforms within the Fediverse. 

For example, a post from a user on a WriteFreely instance can be shared and viewed by users on other platforms that support compatible protocols like ActivityPub. 

Third, hashtags, too, work across different platforms within the Fediverse. Users can search for and follow hashtags to discover content and conversations happening across multiple instances.

Fourth, some Fediverse platforms prioritise user privacy and offer greater control over data. Users can choose instances that align with their privacy preferences and have more say in how their information is managed. Further, using Fediverse might encourage users to learn about decentralised systems (such as decentralised finance, or DeFi, for blockchain and cryptocurrencies), protocols, and diverse communities.

Fifth, being decentralised, Fediverse platforms typically lack the infrastructure to collect and utilise user data for targeted advertising, unlike centralised social networking sites. Fediverse platforms are typically open source and community-driven, relying on donations, sponsorships, or subscriptions from users or organisations interested in supporting their development and maintenance. Some platforms offer premium features for a fee or accept donations to cover server costs and development efforts. As an example, being a non-profit venture, Mastodon’s revenue model is centred around community support, donations, and related services rather than relying on traditional advertising.

Mastodon, on its part, does not broadcast private data like email or internet protocol (IP) addresses. Instead, Mastodon caches and reprocesses images and videos so that the originating server cannot get a user’s IP address, browser name, or time of access. Further, Mastodon does not include any functionality to display ads by default. This means that unless you use Threads, you will not see any ads from Threads. Also, since Mastodon is open-source, you can even host your own server and be entirely in charge.

What’s not so good about it?

The decentralised nature of Fediverse could be confusing for newcomers. Further, different platforms within the Fediverse might have varying features, user experiences, and community guidelines. This fragmentation can create inconsistencies in functionality and user expectations. 

Decentralisation also implies that moderation policies vary across instances. And as the user base grows, scalability becomes a concern, which might impact experience performance issues or struggle to handle increased traffic. 

Also, while interoperability exists to some extent, there isn’t complete standardisation across all platforms within the Fediverse. 

Last, but not the least, the Fediverse currently has a smaller network effect as compared to the larger centralised social networks, which means fewer connections and interactions until more users join the decentralised platforms.

Why is Threads being a part of Fediverse a big deal?

Let’s take Rochko’s words for this: “The fact that large platforms are adopting ActivityPub is not only validation of the movement towards decentralised social media, but a path forward for people locked into these platforms to switch to better providers. Which in turn, puts pressure on such platforms to provide better, less exploitative services. This is a clear victory for our cause, hopefully one of many to come."

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