In an era where most internet traffic goes through a few major companies, it’s often hard to remember that the internet became popular with the help of hobbyists in their bedrooms. That was the great genius of the internet. It allowed everyone to do what they wanted within a standardized framework of protocols, such as POP and HTTP. Anyone could host an email service of their own that would be compatible with all the others, or to create a website hosted on a cobbled-together desktop in their living room.
Just as the public is getting fed up with the manipulation and surveillance used by the Silicon Valley giants, a new standardized social media protocol, ActivityPub, is here to do for social media what HTML and HTTP did for the web. Now everyone from bedroom hobbyists to entrepreneurial startups can create a social network and connect it to everyone else. For entrepreneurs and startups willing to go up against the giants, ActivityPub might be the way of the future.
What is ActivityPub?
Like the Post Office Protocol (POP) for email and the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for the world wide web, ActivityPub is an internet protocol that sets standards for the transfer of social network information. The World Wide Web Consortium, the people behind most of the internet’s foundational standards, such as HTTP, HTML, CSS, and XML, made ActivityPub an official protocol in early 2018. (w3.org/blog/news/archives/6785)
Unlike proprietary networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, ActivityPub is a standard that anyone can use to set up their social network. It also allows the transfer of information between independent networks, so anyone running their operation out of a tiny, low-power computer, such as a Raspberry Pi, can interact with people on prominent commercial social networks, as long as they’re both using the ActivityPub protocol.
A Flexible Alternative to Social Media Giants
Some commenters have been sounding the alarm about the power of social media giants for years. In late 2017, even Silicon Valley insiders started raising concerns about social media addiction and manipulation. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive, said during an interview at Stanford that, “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.” (youtube.com/watch?v=PMotykw0SIk) Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and the first president of Facebook, said to Axios that he hadn’t understood the consequences of what he helped create, and that “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” (axios.com/sean-parker-unloads-on-facebook-god-only-knows-what-its-doing-to-our-childrens-brains-1513306792-f855e7b4-4e99-4d60-8d51-2775559c2671.html)
The public started to take note when the extent of Facebook’s data collection became clear during the early-2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal. Matters only got worse with the revelation that Facebook was helping bad actors spread fake news and violence in the Philippines and Myanmar.
But even though Silicon Valley insiders warn about problems with social media, they don’t usually want it to go away entirely. Instead of losing the connectivity that social media brings, many people, such as long-time Silicon Valley guru Jaron Lanier, believe that a new business model is needed to avoid the manipulation that Facebook and Google use to keep advertising revenue high. Lanier said in an interview with Channel 4 in the UK that, “business interests are a part of society. If we destroy society, we destroy ourselves.” (youtube.com/watch?v=kc_Jq42Og7Q)
With ActivityPub, that alternative social media business model may already be here. By mid-2018, hundreds of thousands of people were already using decentralized social networks compatible with the protocol, such as ones powered by Mastodon, (joinmastodon.org/) Hubzilla, (hubzilla.org/) and PeerTube. (joinpeertube.org/) Each network is significantly different, leaving room for everyone to find their preferred type of social media, while still connecting with everyone else.
Will Decentralized Social Networks be Niche Forever?
Many of the people using these new decentralized social networks are programmers and other tech-savvy people who understand the latest technology. However, with hundreds of thousands of users, ActivityPub networks already have the critical mass needed to at least survive. Decentralized social networking could spread even further with an easy-to-use, well-funded service, the way AOL helped popularize email and the world wide web in the 1990s.
Network effects make it hard to go up against proprietary giants like Facebook and Twitter because a social network doesn’t do much good if there are no other people on it with whom to connect. But as MySpace learned, network effects can’t protect social networks forever. New entrants to the market may have an opportunity; Facebook revealed in mid-2018 that it was already losing users in Europe, (cnbc.com/2018/07/25/facebooks-north-american-daily-active-users-after-scandals.html) and The Guardian reports that teenagers are avoiding the platform because they don’t want to be on the same social network as their parents. (theguardian.com/technology/2018/feb/16/parents-killed-it-facebook-losing-teenage-users)
ActivityPub social networks may stay niche forever, like internet forums rather than Facebook and Twitter. But with major proprietary social networks under increasing pressure, decentralized social networks offer a new opportunity to take on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube for creative people who want to take the risk.