I’m optimistic about Mastodon, the open-source federated Twitter clone, but even more optimistic about ActivityPub. Together, they can bring back the heyday of Google Reader.
Your friend tells you to join Mastodon and you’re like “ok where do I sign up?” and then your friend sends you a manifesto about things like “federation” instead of sending you to the URL where you sign up for Mastodon. Worse, once you do figure out how to sign up, there’s no content there. There’s no algorithm pushing funny cat pictures or engaging (divisive) content. It’s just empty!
This was basically the situation in the 1990’s when your friend said “you need to get on email!” except your ISP helpfully supplied you with an email address and 5 megabytes of storage. Email analogies are rampant with Mastodon because everyone knows what email is, and there’s no one place to sign up for “email.” That’s because (theoretically) anyone can run an email server, but most people just use Gmail.
Let’s pause Mastodon for a moment and talk about what Google Reader was. It was an RSS reader: it let you follow any RSS feed that had a public URL. This is actually huge point because it created demand for RSS content. It was free with a Google account, which reduced the friction to trying it out. There were other RSS readers before and have been plenty since, but they all lacked one thing: the social network.
Google Reader was loved and is mourned because sharing on Google Reader was amazing at the time. You would follow blogs, but you would also follow people who would curate their own feeds and share the best. It was a pre-Twitter Twitter, but entirely centered around RSS feeds (side note: did you know that at one point reddit would let you follow RSS feeds and upvote/downvote?). Since virtually everyone had a Google account, it became a centralized network of interesting RSS items.
The thing is, Google Reader could work with any website that could publish an RSS feed. You didn’t need to request permission or register your feed with Google. You put an RSS feed on the open web, and Google could use it just like anyone else.
That also meant it could interoperate with other social networks. At the time, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram put out RSS feeds that would allow you to follow and share their public content from your Google Reader. Imagine not having to sign up for a social network to follow your friends there! That’s the web we lost.
Which brings us to ActivityPub.
Mastodon is to ActivityPub what Google Reader is to RSS. Google Reader wasn’t the only RSS reader, but at its height it was the biggest. Mastodon isn’t the only ActivityPub application, but it is the biggest. As an added benefit, Mastodon both produces and consumes ActivityPub, which would be like if Google Reader were also blogging software or if WordPress shipped with a built-in RSS reader.
ActivityPub is how Mastodon nodes tell each other about things like follows, new posts, and replies. But other things can run ActivityPub. There’s a FOSS Instagram-ish app called Pixelfed that speaks ActivityPub. My Mastodon account can follow your Pixelfed feed, and I don’t need a Pixelfed account or a separate app. I can follow your PeerTube channel from my Mastodon account. You can follow my Mastodon account from your PeerTube channel!
Dan Hon wrote about getting news orgs to create Mastodon sites. I replied to say that they didn’t need Mastodon. News sites can implement ActivityPub in their existing CMS and publish straight to the Fediverse! (The Fediverse is a nickname for all the different apps and sites that talk to each other through ActivityPub) My blog publishes straight to the Fediverse! Anything can publish straight to the Fediverse! My WordPress blog publishes an RSS feed and it publishes to the Fediverse. If you are following
@firstname.lastname@example.org on Mastodon or Pixelfed or PeerTube or any ActivityPub site this post popped up in your feed.
20 years ago we expected sites to have RSS feeds, today we can push for sites to support ActivityPub. Virtually every email newsletter has an RSS feed, there’s no reason for them not to also have ActivityPub too.
I like Mastodon. I’m particularly fond of my instance, but you should find an instance that resonates with you. If you are part of a community, consider starting your own Mastodon instance. The experience on Mastadon is much richer when you can find a cluster of people.