Meta, WordPress, and Others Explore Mastodon: What Does This Mean for Privacy and the Fediverse?
In November last year, I pointed out that the outages and uncertainty plaguing Twitter under the ownership of Elon Musk had led many people to look at alternatives.
One in particular, Mastodon, based on the ActivityPub decentralized networking protocol, has gained many new users as a result. According to the Mastodon Analytics site, the collection of federated social media servers saw a surge in new users at this time: rising from around 3.5 million users to 6.4 million more recently. Over the same period, the number of Mastodon servers rose from around 3,000 to 10,000.
In an instance of if you can’t beat them, join them, WordPress and Medium are now looking to follow their users on Mastodon, and rumor has it that Meta is trying to do the same.
Big Companies Want In on Mastodon
Since December 2022, the number of active Mastodon users has seen a decline from a peak of 2.4 million to around 1.2 million. Some fall-off was inevitable, as many people tried the new system, some either found it too hard or simply too different from Twitter.
But in the last few weeks there has been a marked rise in interest from major companies, which could result in many millions more joining the Mastodon world. That’s particularly the case if one of those companies – Meta – turns a new research project into a full-blown Mastodon-compatible service.
Meta’s move into the fediverse would also raise important questions about whether the entrance of the social media giant would ultimately be good or bad for the Mastodon world – and for privacy.
Things began to hot up in January, when the online publishing platform Medium, originally launched by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, announced that it was creating its own “instance”. That is, it has set up a new Mastodon server specifically for Medium authors and publications. A post by Tony Stubblebine, CEO of Medium, lists some of the features that he believes will make this new instance different from existing servers:
With so many Mastodon instances to choose from, we plan for me.dm to have a few important benefits out of the gate: reliable infrastructure and moderation, a short domain name to make sharing your username easier, better onboarding for new users, and an interesting local feed.
That’s not just a vote of confidence in the decentralized approach to social networking. It’s also an example that other publishing platforms could follow.
The Metaverse Privacy Problem
Meta is notorious for harvesting and sharing personal information about its users. In 2023, Meta was fined €1.2 billion for violating EU privacy rules after sharing sensitive data about its EU users with the US. This failure to comply with regulations isn’t new.
To protect your privacy, it’s worth taking matters into your own hands with a VPN. PIA encrypts your connection and masks your IP address, shielding your information and location from snoopers.
Remember, once you log into a Meta site like Facebook, in-app trackers can still log your activity, regardless of whether you use a VPN or not. What a VPN will do, though, is keep you safe from linked trackers outside of the app, including those serving targeted ads, logging your data, or spying on your browsing history. It also switches your IP address to shield your physical location, so Meta sites can’t see where you are. And the less you share online, the less Meta has about you. You can download PIA VPN risk-free to keep cross-site tracking and data harvesting at bay.
WordPress Also Joins the fediverse
The news and social network aggregator Flipboard has also set up a dedicated instance for its users, flipboard.social. In addition, according to TechCrunch, the Flipboard app for iOS “will allow Mastodon users to visually flip through their timeline to view posts from the people they follow, much like they’ve been able to do with Twitter.”
The ActivityPub plugin makes it possible for readers to follow a WordPress site in the fediverse using the ActivityPub protocol. This includes Mastodon, one of the most popular platforms using the protocol, and other platforms like Pleroma, Friendica, HubZilla, Pixelfed, SocialHome, and Misskey. For those using Mastodon, this plugin will automatically send posts to the network and replies to it will become comments on the post.
According to figures on Wikipedia, as of May 2021, “WordPress is used by 64.8% of all the websites whose content management system is known. This is 41.4% of the top 10 million websites.” If even a small proportion of sites using WordPress add the ActivityPub plugin, this will provide a huge boost to the ActivityPub and Mastodon worlds.
But even the WordPress boost pales in comparison with news that Meta is exploring the idea of creating a standalone text-based app that will support ActivityPub. According to MoneyControl, which first revealed Meta’s P92 project, features of Meta’s potential new service are still in a state of flux:
Some of the other features including tappable links in posts with previews (like Twitter), user bio, username, verification badges, images and videos would be made shareable on the initial versions of the app, according to the plan. It would also allow followers and likes, but it is unclear whether features for commenting and messaging would be there in the first version of the product. However, these will be included eventually.
The Uncertain Future of the fediverse with Meta
A lot depends on the details, but anything from Meta that supports ActivityPub is likely to have a massive impact on decentralized social media. For example, it would make signing up for a Mastodon-like service much simpler: one of the main criticisms of today’s approach is that it is too hard for most people.
If P92 supported fully the ActivityPub protocol, that would allow users to move from Meta’s service to others – finally escaping the famous walled garden of that company. People could choose to move to instances offering better privacy protections, putting pressure on Meta to improve its own policies in this area.
But there are also risks. If Meta’s P92 project became as popular as its other online services, with hundreds of millions of users, it could also swamp the rest of the fediverse. In that case, Meta would be able to diverge from the open standards, for example by blocking the ability of users to migrate to other instances, in a classic case of embrace, extend, and extinguish.