Less than a day ago I joined Threads, the Instagram companion from Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta targetted squarely at Twitter. It is clear the app’s popularity stems from its close relation to Instagram—you can even import your followers, even if they have not yet joined Threads themselves—and not because it offers something new: as a social network, Threads feels quite dead. But what made me give Threads a chance, as I stated in my very first post on that platform, was their promise to join the Federation.
The Federation is a promising new idea built on the ActivityPub protocol that can potentially make all social networks decentralised, sort of like e-mail. I for one believe this is the future of the internet at least when it comes to social networking.
Shortly after I asked and received an invite to Bluesky, having tired waiting several months for their queue to get to me (or did I lose the invite code in my spam mail?) Bluesky is the brainchild of Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey and was originally intended to create a protocol for Twitter. Subsequent to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and severing of all ties with Bluesky, Dorsey’s team set out to make their own platform.
Unlike Threads, Bluesky is not powered by ActivityPub but is instead its own technology differing from the ActivityPub protocol slightly. ActivityPub is itself not the only solution of its kind, with platforms being able to adopt its competitors like IPFS, IRC, Matrix, Peergos, Hypercore etc. But ActivityPub is currently the most popular, supposedly the most effective in fulfilling its decentralisation duties, and is used by Mastodon, the largest decentralised network currently in existence. Threads, of course, promises to follow.
Despite their differences, the future Threads and the current Mastodon and Bluesky are all part of the same breed of social networking platforms. For the purposes of this article, let us call them entities of “the Federation”.
It was not long after I got into Bluesky—and happened to like it more than Threads, at least for the time being—that I stumbled upon a rather polarised debate. It started with this:
if Black people don’t feel safe on a platform, NO marginalized group will. i will not feel safe here as a trans person when this place opens up, federation be damned.
The rant was understandable although I was unaware what prompted it. (And what prompted it continues to be unimportant.) I am in complete agreement that people identifying with all groups need to feel safe on a decent social media platform so there was no arguing there. What made me stop and think, though, was the last clause: “federation be damned”.
This is like hating a picket fence for not keeping out wild bears when your only alternative is not having fences at all.
While several people responded in agreement, someone was thoughtful enough to point out that the Federation is not to blame for this at all:
I care about federation a lot. It’s the only way to ensure the corrupt capitalist incentives don’t permanently destroy the platform.
Federation also makes moderation easier and puts it in the hands of users instead on relying on the individuals corruptible by money and bad incentives.
Once again, the idea was sound and I was in complete agreement. Racists, bigots, homophobes and nazis are bad, anti-social and unwelcome, and everyone discussing this issue was in agreement; but speaking in favour of the Federation seemed to touch a sensitive spot for many. There were responses calling the above user with colourful, unpleasant names which I will remain dignified enough not to reproduce here. However, I thought I should step in at this point and tried to keep my words succinct:
Agreed. I think work needs to be done to make platforms welcoming to and accepting of every individual and group. I also think the Federation is the most promising approach that exists today that can help realise such a platform/set of platforms.
I felt that cleared the air to some extent, drawing the debate away from the perceived mutually exclusive nature of these ideas—the idea of the federation and the idea that racism etc. is bad. Not only do we favour both, as I tried to say, but one of them is our best bet for realising the other. The Federation was the way forward if we wanted to a safe social network. I reiterated this point in another post on the same discussion:
Precisely. There’s a black-and-white view of the world that people resort to when they haven’t given themselves time to think things through. Moderation is important to combat racism, sexism and all other forms of separation. And the federation is probably our best bet to get there for now.
The idea was simple: there was a false dichotomy that was assumed in this discussion that people in favour of the fediverse were automatically against calling for a platform that was safe for everyone.
One can go on with the exchange but it turned out to be about as useful as any exchange on the internet these days, so let us instead rush to the point: who is ultimately responsible for a safe, welcoming social network.
If you had asked someone this question five years ago, the answer would have been a resounding ‘The company running the platform’. Maybe the US Congress would question tech leaders to hilarious ends; maybe tech companies would publish granoise manifestos on their content moderation written carefully to insult nobody and everybody at the same time; maybe some posts and users would be banned but if you turned off a large chunk of users you would risk also turning away your cash cows: advertisers. It was a pandora’s box nobody wanted to touch.
Today, the Fediverse has shown us a decentralised social network where the point of it all is the content itself, not who owns the platform or runs the ad engine in the background. It is no longer about user data or corporate sponsorships of influencers (although influencers themselves are a harmless breed who are not going away just yet). The Fediverse has given control of the data to its users and those who understand how to run its servers can choose to do so while others can simply hop onboard, enjoy the ride and make it fun, trustworthy and informative for everyone else too.
The point is that the Federation shifts responsibility from companies to users. Gone are the days when you could fashionably sit on your sofa, complain about Jack Dorsey or Elon Musk, and feel like you made a difference. Now you get to actually participate in the moderation and decision making that will shape the social network to which you belong. And if you do not like it, move to another server taking your content with you.
In the Fediverse the users are not beholden to their high-earning, platform-owning overlords anymore. The users are democratic shareholders whose decision can shape the server and whose actions can effectively impact the server. And through a server, it can send a ripple effect that impacts the entire Fediverse positively.
Unless you are addicted to complaining, I would strongly urge everyone giving Threads or Bluesky a shot to move to the Fediverse instead, do your part in creating the community you deserve and enjoy the fruits of your labour.