A Plan for Social Media - What? ✅ Why? ✅ Who? 🤷

This is the final part of the series calling for a different approach in the development of Social Media based on open standards. In the previous post, I argued that we could build applications that relied less on functionality provided by the server and put the client in control. The server software needed would be responsible mostly for authenticating users (i.e, keeping track of user identities) and sending and routing ActivityPub messages.

I want to close out this series with a list of market players who could be interested in trying out this strategy. Unfortunately, investment in new technologies is more dependent on hype than on a clear value-based evaluation, which means that someone like Mozilla backing down of their plans can be seen that the momentum for the open social web is reduced. Couple that with the fact that “Fediverse Culture” is still largely anti-corporate and averse to “profit-motive” ventures and it’s hard to imagine a large number of companies eager to place some bets into this game.

Still, I do believe that there is an opportunity here. Just look at how much Facebook is investing strongly on Threads and its (so far, credible) commitment to interoperate with other ActivityPub-based systems. Threads has been promoted as the “Twitter killer”, but to me, this is more than just a social network with billions of users trying to snag a hundred million more from a rival; Zuckerberg’s investment in Threads should be seen as a medium-long term play to move away from being a company that runs a panopticon to an infrastructure provider for other companies. This move makes sense to them. We are already seeing how AI-generated content is ruining search and poisoning the well of community recommendations. It seems reasonable to believe that social media will be moving away from the “global town square” and give room to direct conversations between people in small groups that already have a established connection. With that in mind, who should we be watching for as potential businesses coming up with new initiatives in the space?

Browser vendors

Mozilla’s initial effort failed. And, unlike Google, they do not have a history of persuing a space multiple times. They have taken many shots at different ideas, but I do not recall any project that has been repeatedly tried.

What about the other browser vendors, though? Apple still leans hard on the idea that their platform is more secure and protective of users’ privacy. They are also known for “not doing social media”. But the appealing aspect of a protocol-based approach to it is that they wouldn’t have to build the network, they would just need to ensure that the experience is superior. Consider how the whole “Reddit API protests” started due the most popular client (Apollo) being so much better than the Reddit’s own client that it was hurting Reddit’s revenues. Would it be too crazy to have Apple re-hiring Christian Selig to make “Social Web Client” built into iOS or Safari?

If not Apple, maybe other Chrome-based, privacy-focused browsers? Brave could use some investment in social as a way to reinvegorate its crowdfunding platform and could also leverage its in-device ad inventory, turning into a system that let advertisers find their audience and connecting them directly through social media. Users of DDG and Vivaldi with a built-in social browser would certainly have increased usage and contribute to their revenue streams.

Website builders

One of the worst aspects of the “walled gardens” was that it made impossible for independent professionals and small businesses to reach their customers unless they paid to promote their own content.

Whether you are the owner a small restaurant, a farmer selling produce at a local market or a wedding photographer, having all these separate social media networks means that you have to keep an online presence on each of them.

Being able to have social web based on open standards would mean that people would be able to take back control of their online presence. As long as you have your own domain, you are in control of how you interact with anyone else.

If Facebook’s plan really is to pivot to an infrastructure provider, it would be wise for companies like squarespace, Wix and Weebly to preempt their move and create offerings where their customers can simply provide their domain and get an account on ActivityPub-capable server. This move is already happening in the open source world: Wordpress has already created an integration with ActivityPub that lets people follow and interact with a blog from Mastodon and other Fediverse software, and Ghost also started working on it, presumably with the intent of adding monetization options for content creators that want to have an alternative to the likes of Medium and Substack.

Domain registrars

Identity and reputation is an integral part of decentralized systems. If you receive a message from a recruiter that claims to work for ACME, inc., but the email message is sent from “jane.from.acme@hotmail.com” you will be a lot less likely to trust it. With current social media, we are still in this weird situation where brands and famous individuals risk their names taken by squatters and have to rely either on “blue checks” or having enough clout to be able to claim their name back, which can be a long process.

The majority of domain registrars offer auxiliary services for everyone that is buying their own domain. The current suite of “Fediverse” software is still too big for these companies to be able to offer, but having a simpler, client-first system for ActivityPub would mean that they could partner with other service providers or even run their own, like they do with email.

Final thoughts

I don’t really have a definitive conclusion here. I just wanted to lay out some thoughts based on my involvement with the Fediverse and from observing the direction that its development has taken. While it’s impossible to prove it, I sincerely believe that we have enough evidence to conclude that the current server-centric approach is not going to be able to take us to the next level in mass adoption. To support this belief, I can say that Communick is no longer going to offer Managed Mastodon hosting (for new customers, existing ones do not need to worry) and will instead focus on promoting Takahe, because it at least provides a solution where one server can be used to as a host for multiple domains. I also starting exploring some ideas on a fork of Takahe to make it a testbed for ActivityPub C2S.

If you are interested in the future of social media and would like to support my work, here is how you can help, in order of increasing commitment:

  • Join Communick. For $29/year, you get access to a suite of services that includes an account on Mastodon, Matrix, Lemmy and also listen to music on Funkwhale.

  • Become a sponsor.

  • Hire me. I’ve been working with web and large-scale distributed systems for almost 20 years, but most important I have a good track record for delivering customer-first, product-focused work. Whether for full-time or part-time positions, I am available for any short-term or long-term project.