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Instagram’s Threads to join fediverse alongside Mastodon. What’s it mean?

Jul 14, 2023

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Meta’s launch of Threads earlier in July amassed more than 100 million users in just a few days for the Twitter alternative. Threads is hoping to get a leg up on the competition by eventually integrating the microblogging platform into the fediverse.

What is the fediverse?

The fediverse is “a social network of different servers operated by third parties that are connected and can communicate with each other,” according to an Instagram help post. “Each server on the fediverse operates on its own but can talk to other servers on the fediverse that run on the same protocol.”

The word is an amalgamation of the words federation and universe.

The easiest way to understand the concept of the fediverse is to look at how email works. For example, users with a free service provider like Gmail or Yahoo can seamlessly send messages to someone with an address tied to a university.

“And those two servers are each, their own separate entities,” Ross Schulman, senior fellow for decentralization at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Straight Arrow News. “And they talk to each other using a common protocol. And they exchange these little text messages that we call email.”

The idea of the fediverse for social media platforms has been around for more than 15 years. Early iterations of the idea were the website Identi.ca and a software package called StatusNet, created by software developer and technologist Evan Prodromou.

“As part of that work, I worked with a team, my team at StatusNet to develop a standard called OStatus, which was kind of the original distributed social networking platform,” Prodromou told Straight Arrow News. “And then, after I worked on OStatus, I led a working group at the W3C to standardize the current standard called activitypub.”

To better understand how the fediverse works it’s best to look at how legacy social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and even LinkedIn work.

“In order to participate in LinkedIn, you have to have a LinkedIn account, you can only connect to other people on LinkedIn,” Prodromou said. “And all of your content kind of stays on LinkedIn, everything you post, everything you talk about, in and that is a very centralized system, because it’s really closed off from the rest of the world.”

In contrast, users on one federated site can like, share and follow content from other platforms. For example, a user on microblogging platform Mastodon, can follow users on video sharing platform PeerTube and vice versa. The content would show up in the user’s preferred feed and stats like the number of shares would show up within those posts.

Mastodon is one of the most successful federated platforms after receiving quite a bit of attention following Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter.

“There were mass layoffs, but one casualty of that was the trust and safety teams at Twitter, who by no means were getting perfect, but at least were invested in trying and then after they left there was just nothing,” Schulman said. “I think largely it was this sort of movement from ‘Hey, it’s not perfect, but they’re trying.’ It doesn’t seem like they’re trying anymore and that drove a lot of people away.”

While the fediverse may seem similar to Reddit there is a substantial difference. Subreddits act somewhat independently with volunteer administrators that police content themselves. But they are still hosted on Reddit’s servers and subject to its rules and changes in policy. The same could be said about Facebook’s groups.

Meanwhile, on a federated site like Mastodon, servers, which are known as instances, are completely independent and use the Mastodon code to operate.

“There’s the mastodon code base, which is the computer code that runs the server, which is open source, and anybody can host on any machine that they want to, as long as it’s internet connected,” Schulman said. “And then there’s Mastodon.social, which is the entity that runs one of the mastodon instances out there, but doesn’t have any control over any of the other ones.”

Meta’s foray into the fediverse is ruffling some feathers. A group of instance moderators have launched the Anti-Meta Fedi Pact, which promises to “block any instances owned by Meta should they pop up in the fediverse.”

“A great part of the fediverse is that we’ve built those controls in, so those people can have the Fedi Pact and just say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to have anyone from threads who can follow us,’” Prodromou said. “And it is an exercise of that control. And honestly, I applaud it, I don’t share the same concerns. But I do like the fact that they can make that decision and stick with it.”

A decentralized social media ecosystem does raise concerns. Moderation is of particular issue. But Schulman says it generally works itself out.

“What we tend to see is those servers that effectively don’t have enough moderation to stop that kind of problem from happening, very quickly gets sort of blacklisted from the rest of the fediverse,” he said.

“It is really up to the individual service providers to set the rules for how their users are allowed to post and also what kind of stuff they’re willing to have come in so they do have kind of a border control,” Prodromou adds. “Where it’s like, ‘Hey, we don’t want to have sexual content on our site.’ Which is traditional for Instagram, right?”

It’s unclear when Threads will officially join the fediverse but Prodromou says there’s already incentive for developers to get in on the action.

“If you do some innovation, if you build some cool new product, new search engine, new way of sharing video, audio, games, the sky is really the limit, you launch it, and you’ve got a audience of tens of millions, or coming soon, hundreds of millions of people who can start using it on day one.”

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Brent Jabbour:

When Instagram launched its Twitter alternative, Threads, on July 5th, new users were met with a message about future plans to join something called the fediverse.

So, what is it?

The Fediverse is a collection of decentralized platforms where users can interact and communicate across a host of different sites.

To get a better understanding, let’s take a look at the way mainstream social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and even LinkedIn work today.

Evan Prodromou:
“In order to participate in LinkedIn, you have to have a LinkedIn account, you can only connect to other people on LinkedIn. And all of your content kind of stays on LinkedIn, everything you post everything you talk about, in and that is a very centralized system, because it’s really closed off from the rest of the world.”

Evan Prodromou is a entrepreneur and technologist who led a team that helped develop ActivityPub, the backbone of the fediverse. Some would call him the godfather of the fediverse.

Evan Prodromou:

“Father of the fediverse Godfather of the fediverse, it is a long tradition, we’ve had distributed systems for the internet for a long time. So I stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Ross Schulman:

“ A lot of people already understand this concept, but don’t know that they do, because it’s the exact same concept as email”

Brent Jabbour:

Ross Schulman is a senior fellow for Decentralization at the Electronic frontier foundation, a nonprofit that works to defend civil liberties in the digital world.

Ross Schulman:
‘So, you know, when you say, I’m gonna send an email to my cousin who works at a school somewhere, he’s got a.edu address, right? I’m on Gmail, for example, there are two different servers, one is whatever, columbia.edu or whatever, and one is gmail.com. And those two servers are each, their own separate entities. And they talk to each other using a common protocol. And they exchange these little text messages that we call email.”

Brent Jabbour:

In the case of the fediverse, users on microblogging platform Mastodon can like, follow, and share content from other federated platforms including video platform PeerTube and wordpress. This allows users to theoretically have a single account and feed in the fediverse.

To date, Mastadon has been the most successful fediverse platform, receiving a lot of attention after Elon Musk took over twitter and users looked for other options.

Evan Prodromou:

“there are a number of players in the technology space, who have had to depend on Twitter for for quite a while, right. And as Twitter becomes less of a dependable partner for them, and they don’t, and they no longer have the same kind of arrangements, relationships. So classically, say the API for Twitter, the terms have changed quite a bit.”

Ross Schulman:
“there were mass layoffs, but but one one casualty of that was the trust and safety teams at Twitter, who by no means were getting perfect, but at least we’re you know, invested in trying and then after they left there was just nothing.”

“I think largely it was the it was this sort of movement from Hey, it’s not perfect, but they’re trying to it doesn’t even seem like they’re trying anymore that drove a lot of people away.”

Brent Jabbour:

While Mastodon may seem akin to Reddit there is a big difference. Subreddits act somewhat independently, but are still hosted by Reddit and subject to its rules and changes in policy, something that has caused issues in recent months.

When it comes to Mastodon, servers, known as instances, are completely independent and just use the Mastodon code to operate.

Ross Schulman:
“So there’s the mastodon code base, which is the computer code that runs the server, which is open source, and anybody can host on any machine that they want to, as long as it’s internet connected, obviously. And then there’s Mastodon dot social, which is the entity that runs one of the mastodon instances out there, but doesn’t have any control over any of the other ones.”

Brent Jabbour:

Not everyone is happy about Threads plans to join the Fediverse. A group of instance moderators have signed the Anti-Meta Fedi Pact, saying they will block any meta owned instances.

Evan Prodromou:
“A great part of the fediverse is that we’ve built those controls in, so those people can have the Fedi Pact and just say, Hey, we’re not going to have anyone from threads who can follow us. And it is an exercise of that control. And honestly, I applaud it, I don’t share the same concerns. But I do like the fact that they can make that decision and stick with it.”

Brent Jabbour:

But, this decentralized nature does raise some concerns.

Ross Schulman:
I think one of the one of the downsides that jumps out, I think, most strikingly is, is that it makes moderation harder, doesn’t make it impossible, but but it makes it harder”

“What we tend to see is that those those servers that that effectively don’t have enough moderation to stop that kind of problem from happening very quickly gets sort of like blacklisted from the rest of the Federer’s.”

Evan Prodromou:
“It is really up to the individual service providers to set the rules for how their users are allowed to post and also what kind of stuff they’re willing to have come in so they do have kind of a border control? Where it’s like, hey, we don’t want to have sexual content on our site, which is which is traditional for like Instagram, right?”

Brent Jabbour:

While the fediverse may be about to go through a huge growth spurt, Ross and Evan see upside for those looking for this type of social media experience.

Ross Schulman:
“the promise of the fediverse, for me, is this dichotomy between being able to find a place or a virtual place where, you like, the atmosphere, and that can be for, you know, a million different reasons.”

Evan Prodromou:

“If you do some innovation, if you build some cool new product, new search engine, new way of sharing video, audio games, the sky is really the limit, you launch it, and you’ve got a audience of 10s of millions, or coming soon, hundreds of millions of people who can start using it on day one.”

At this time, It’s unclear when Threads will officially become part of the fediverse.