I’m soliciting prompts for discussion. This piece is a part of that series.
Erlend Sogge Heggen asks:
There’s legitimate reason to be worried about Meta’s P92 project being part of a EEE play against the fediverse.
How might the fediverse community counteract this, perhaps with its own EEE strategy?
We know Meta will attempt an EEE play, but what if we play the reverse UNO card and EE(E) them instead?
Embrace: Carefully federate in a minimum-viable fashion that doesn’t overrun the existing #fediverse.
Extend: Make #NomadicIdentity a reality, so accounts can be moved effortlessly.
Extinguish: In case of misconduct, defederate and provide mass-migration assistance.
First, some quick definitions!
P92 is the codename for Meta / Facebook’s new app that will support the same ActivityPub protocol as Mastodon and its cousins. Users will be able to log in with their Instagram credentials, and one can potentially (but not definitely) imagine it being folded into the mainline Instagram app.
Embrace, Extend, Extinguish was a phrase coined internally inside Microsoft to describe its strategy with respect to the web. The idea was that the company would embrace open protocols, extend them with its own proprietary extensions, and then use its control over those extensions to extinguish competition. In particular, its plan was to do this with HTML in order to cement Internet Explorer as the web browser.
Finally, the fediverse, of course, is the community of small, independently-owned, largely non-profit social networks that interoperate using shared protocols, on which Mastodon is the largest platform.
There is legitimate concern that a company like Meta might attempt to control the fediverse. This is particularly true if they are allowed to create a uni-polar world: one where Meta is the only large company embracing these standards. In that world, Meta can throw hundreds of millions of users at the protocol, and it will instantly become its largest user.
I think it’s helpful to look at how Microsoft’s EEE strategy failed. There were arguably two main factors: antitrust risk and competition.
The Department of Justice sued Microsoft for monopolistic business practices, ultimately leading to a settlement where Microsoft capitulated to changing some of its approach in return for the DOJ dropping its desire to break up the company. It’s not clear to me that this kind of case would or could take place with respect to Meta extinguishing the fediverse; while I’m not a lawyer, I think the argument would probably be that many other social networks are available.
The other thing that hurt Microsoft’s dominance was Firefox. It was a good browser backed by a good community, but that wasn’t the deciding factor; Firefox gained market share because Google pushed it at every possible opportunity. Because Internet Explorer’s dominance was a business risk to Google, and because Firefox was built by a non-profit that was non-competitive with Google’s business, it made financial sense to try and break Microsoft’s stranglehold. Mozilla’s model was stronger than its predecessor Netscape’s had been: whereas Netscape needed to sell licenses, Mozilla’s deal with Google meant it made money every time someone used Firefox to search for something on the web. There was almost no friction to its growth strategy.
This activity led to a resurgence in a healthy ecosystem of standards-based web browsers for years — until Google decided to re-use the technique it had used on Firefox to push its own web browser. Even then, Chrome is a far better standards player than Internet Explorer ever was.
There won’t be hard evidence that Meta is adopting ActivityPub until we see its app in the wild. But if it is, that likely means that it sees the protocol as at least worth experimenting with, and maybe even as a potential threat. That’s a sign of great progress, and everyone involved in building the fediverse should feel good about it.
If Meta wants to own the fediverse, this isn’t a battle that will be primarily won with features or technology. Easy-to-use platforms, nomadic identity that easily lets you move your presence from one provider to another, and assistance will all be essential, but they’ll be table stakes. (If Meta is working on the platform today, it’s probably also too late for truly nomadic identity to make a difference.) To really stand a chance, the fediverse will need the kind of marketing and go-to-market support that Firefox enjoyed back in the day. Which may mean support from another large player that considers Meta’s ownership of the standard to be an existential risk.
It’s hard to see who that might be. Twitter is now the incompetence wing of the incompetence party. It’s highly unlikely that networks like Pinterest care. Microsoft’s platforms are tightly bound to its ecosystem, with access control at their core; I don’t see LinkedIn joining the fediverse any time soon. Google has fallen on its face every time it’s tried to build a social network, and runs YouTube as a separate entity that strongly benefits from closed ads. Salesforce might consider it a risk, as it provides social tools for businesses, which are easier to build and sell on an open social networking standard. Some of these entities might consider the fediverse to be worth exploring — but there’s no clear technology backer. Cloudflare actually did provide its own Mastodon-compatible platform that runs on its CDN, but it hasn’t seen anything like wide use. Medium has embraced Mastodon but has not deeply built support into its existing platform.
Perhaps media companies, who generally live and die on the size of their audiences, and have often been beholden to the large social networks, might find themselves interested in embracing a social networking federation where they have more say and control. The rise of the fediverse certainly is a de-risking of their business models. But I don’t think they see it yet; nor do I think they consider it their place to pick a winner. (Nor should it be, really, in practice.)
Perhaps there can be another kind of backer: an entity that sees the existential thread centralized control of social media poses to democracy itself. We’ve already seen how, left unchecked, centralized companies like Facebook incite genocides and throw elections. The fediverse can be an antidote to these trends — if we see it as a set of collaborating communities rather than simply the technology alone. The erosion of democracy, like monopolistic abuse of power, are human problems with human solutions rather than technological ones. Foundations and philanthropists may choose to provide this level of support, if they continue to see Meta as a threat to democracy.
Building features will not protect the fediverse from being extinguished, although they may provide a useful baseline. It’s going to take a whole different level of strategy, relationship-building, deal-making, and movement-building. I believe the fediverse is capable of doing this, as long as it doesn’t mistake building software for making true progress.