The Washington Post recently published an op-ed by Megan McArdle titled "Twitter might be replaced, but not by Mastodon or other imitators." The article argues that Mastodon is falling into a common trap for open source projects: building a look-alike alternative which improves things a typical user doesn’t care about, while missing elements that made the original successful. Instead, she suggests that deposing Twitter will require something that is wholly new, and offer the masses something they didn’t know they wanted.
Where we disagree, is that Mastodon (as part of the Fediverse) does offer that in the form of a truly interoperable and portable social media presence. Characterizing Mastodon as a mere Twitter-clone overlooks this strength of the fediverse to be or become any social platform you can imagine. That’s the power of protocols. The fediverse as a whole is a micro-blogging site, as well as for sharing photos, videos, book lists and reading updates, and more.
Since this is a widely held misconception about the fediverse, and as a picture is worth a thousand words, let’s take a look at how the wider world of ActivityPub works in practice.
This is PeerTube. It's a video hosting site that allows people to follow others, upload video, comment on, and “like” videos. This is the main channel page for the Blender open source project, and from here you can subscribe to the channel. (For all of these images, right click and choose "Open in a new tab" to get a better view.)
For this example we created a temporary Mastodon account at toot.io. Once we hit "Remote subscribe" above, we’re taken to our Mastodon account. From here we just click follow and now our Mastodon account is following Blender’s PeerTube account.
Now, every time Blender posts a new video to PeerTube, it shows up in our Mastodon timeline. From here, we can also “like” the video and compose a reply…
… and both the like and the reply seamlessly show up on the page for the video.
Pixelfed is another ActivityPub based service that takes the form of a picture sharing social network. Here’s the home page for Dan Supernault, the lead developer.
We can follow him from here, just as we did with the Blender organization’s PeerTube page above, but we can also search for him directly from our Mastodon account if we know his username.
Just as with PeerTube, once we follow Dan, his images will start showing up in Mastodon, and our likes and comments will show up in Pixelfed as well.
These are just a couple examples of the way that common protocols in general, and ActivityPub in particular, enable innovations in social networking. The fediverse also has BookWyrm, a social reading platform, FunkWhale, a music publishing and sharing service, and WriteFreely, a longer-form blogging platform, among others.
The promise of the fediverse is that all of these interoperate with however someone wants to view them. If I like Mastodon, I can still get pictures from PixelFed even if they might be presented better on Pixelfed. Moreover, my comments show up on Pixelfed in their expected form.
People coming from Twitter tend to think of the fediverse as a Twitter-replacement for the obvious reasons, and thus use Mastodon (or perhaps micro.blog), but that’s only a fraction of its potential. The question isn’t if the fediverse can replace Twitter, but if protocols can usurp platforms in our life online. With enough momentum the fediverse can be the fabric of the social web, incorporating existing systems like Tumblr and Medium and outright replacing stragglers.