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ActivityPub could be the future

This is a post I originally wrote and published here in 2020. I’ve put it back up in the same place since a lot of people are looking it up in light of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter and the ongoing fallout. I plan to do a followup here in 2022 with all I’ve learned and seen in the two years since. I also moved instances since then, so I updated the link. Follow me here.

I’ll admit, I’ve spent the last several years disillusioned with technology. All the quirky little tools people made gave way to ad-fueled companies that refused to play well with others.

This is the first time I’ve been excited for a new technology in memory.

ActivityPub is to HTTP what HTTP was to TCP/IP. TCP/IP bridged disparate systems and allowed them to communicate reliably. HTTP allowed the various services built on TCP/IP to communicate with each other reliably.

ActivityPub goes one step further and provides a way for users on those services to communicate in a way that has the appearance of directness. I can follow, for example, Blender’s videos on PeerTube from my Mastodon account. Or I can use a blog platform that speaks ActivityPub and let people follow it from other services. It’s all the best features of Twitter with the flexibility of RSS. And unlike Twitter, your Mastodon profile will probably never lose its RSS feed in a company’s pursuit of profit. The main project already funds itself through Patreon, as do most of the larger instances.

It’s still early. We could be looking at a situation like Usenet and Gopher where neither ended up being The Thing because AOL soaked up the nascent public internet, then Facebook soaked up the nascent commercial web.

Right now the popularity of Mastodon carries ActivityPub while projects like Plume (blogging), Pixelfed (image sharing), and others work toward their potential.

I have noticed a tendency for people supporting older, similar protocols to wonder why ActivityPub got so popular while their own stagnated. We could speculate. If people knew Ostatus at all, they understood it as a protocol for making Twitter clones. XMPP spoke XML in an age of JSON, and it was perceived as an instant messenger protocol.

Both focused on liberating people from commercial silos. Mastodon had some press to that effect regarding Twitter, but people on there have come to care less as its native and diverse community grows to a self-sufficient level.

Twitter and Facebook are struggling to cope with their place in a massive cultural shift and shaky transfer of generational power. As I write this, Facebook has just lost 25% of its share price on the announcement that it expects weak growth.

I think the growing ActivityPub federation has a good chance. No one interacts with my tweets anymore. Meanwhile, I get response on Mastodon that reminds me of the early days of Twitter, before they betrayed their developer community and hired a legion of people to cut ad deals.


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