Just two years ago, trend reports from business consultants, technological innovation firms, and marketing and communication agencies placed the metaverse at the forefront of concepts set to change the rules of the game. It didn’t happen that way. Companies investing in technology to bring these virtual worlds to life hit the brakes, laid off thousands of employees, and shelved their projects for a more opportune moment. While the metaverse hasn’t settled yet, a concept similar-sounding and perhaps with the key to solving one of the metaverse’s major problems is gaining traction: the Fediverse. Not familiar with it? I’ll try to summarize.
One of the foundational principles of the internet is the idea that it should be an environment that doesn’t belong to anyone. If the internet isn’t the product of a single country and its government or isn’t controlled by a single company, it can’t be manipulated solely for its exclusive benefit. While this decentralization isn’t absolute (there are organizations overseeing technical standards, and certain countries have more influence), the operation has generally followed these broad lines.
The so-called “net neutrality,” in fact, has been the target of telecommunications companies seeking a share of the business. Why can 100% online service companies like Amazon or Netflix operate by saturating networks without paying extra for providing these services over their infrastructures? César Alierta, former president of Telefónica, explained this clearly, though whether everyone agrees with this reasoning is another matter.
From decentralization to the social media oligopoly
To the point. The internet has functioned as a decentralized organism, and this decentralization has been attempted in various environments, always with the purpose of preserving user decision-making power. Blockchain technology, for example, allows maintaining the integrity of information without it being manipulated or fraudulently used, helping to develop interesting systems that enhance data security and, consequently, the security of the individuals to whom the data belongs. However, social media altered the landscape a bit.
In that scenario of freedom and power in the hands of individuals (just refer to the Cluetrain Manifesto), some social networks grew and multiplied, becoming giants that absorbed the superpowers of others in the form of new features. Today, the game is dominated by major players: Meta (Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram), Microsoft (LinkedIn), Alphabet (YouTube), Elon Musk (Twitter, formerly known as X), Amazon (Twitch), and ByteDance (TikTok). There are significant secondary players with traces of social networking and peanuts, like Spotify, Pinterest, Kick, or Telegram, but they’re not the same. Occasionally, new contenders emerge, such as BlueSky (Jack Dorsey’s neo-Twitter) or Mastodon, but they remain niche environments.
The thing is, each network is its own world. And this couldn’t be a better description because the purpose of each one, for many years now, is to keep the user within that environment and find everything they need there. Meta and Alphabet have been in that fight for a long time and have good tools for it. However, communicating between platforms remains impossible. Until now.
A system to unite them all: the Fediverse
The Fediverse is a concept that combines the words “federation” and “universe” and applies to the federation of different servers that, under a common protocol like ActivityPub (used by Mastodon), can exchange information. With ActivityPub, for example,there is the possibility of setting up our own server to interact on a social network and, even better, create a unique profile from which to post and respond on other social networks that are also connected and understand the protocol.
The Fediverse, therefore, could be the gateway to connecting many things, including social networks, simplifying our universe and expanding our possibilities. Imagine responding to an Instagram post from YouTube or posting on Instagram and X at the same time. Crazy? Not so much.
In July, Meta launched Threads, the “Twitter of Facebook.” After discarding something called Instagram Notes, Meta chose to create a new social network that closely resembles the Twitter we knew, with some improvements: post editing, very practical function shortcuts, and, for now, much less hate than what is seen on X. There’s no concept of charging for verification here, and frankly, it’s a blessing. Well, Threads has embraced the Fediverse by using the landing in Europe to start operating on ActivityPub. And yes, you can now post on Mastodon from a Threads account. Cool.
“Threads has embraced the Fediverse by using the landing in Europe to start operating on ActivityPub.”
Problems and doubts about the Fediverse
However, all of this has its problems:
- It’s crucial that the protocol is a standardized standard, not a collection of them, like the different types of plugs we encounter when traveling to other countries. BlueSky operates on AT Protocol, preventing the same philosophy from expanding. A bad start.
- The Fediverse is sold under the banners of more options and more simplicity. But it’s not that simple, really. How many people would be able to develop apps that converge functions from different social networks? There’s a significant technical task involved.
- Using one account to post on multiple sites will initially lead to something terrible: the same content appearing on different networks, even if it doesn’t adapt correctly. Does an Instagram with text and without photos or videos make sense? It doesn’t seem reasonable.
- If Meta is embracing the Fediverse, there must be a reason. Has Mark Zuckerberg become a communist? It’s unlikely, and perhaps one should be skeptical that one of the industry giants is joining a trend that would diminish some of the control it has had in recent years. Possibly, Meta sees more possibilities in building on the Fediverse than against it.
The concept of the Fediverse is not new, but it is now that it seems to be getting the boost it needs to grow and become something more. Perhaps the chaos caused by Elon Musk on Twitter will have a good consequence, pushing innovation toward different models of socialization and content publication on the internet. In a future stage, we might see how the idea of a unique profile, with more user control, motivates the development of the metaverse, which was not favored by the appearance of different worlds, each requiring the creation of a new character to participate.
David Pierce of The Verge predicts a very interesting 2024 in this field. For him, it will be the year when the Fediverse becomes an industry. If so, 2025 could be the time when this industry begins to monetize… or when it sinks. We’ll have to wait and see.