Open networks are more valuable than closed ones: the case for the Fediverse over Twitter and Facebook
Networks are everywhere, and they are valuable. Consider:
- The road network. Imagine you’d need a different car for each piece of road. Life as we know it today would be utterly impossible without it.
- The phone network. To pick two random use cases, without it you couldn’t call customer service or summon an ambulance.
- The Visa credit card network (and its competitors). You would have to use cash instead, but arguably everybody accepting the same currency forms a network, too, and without that, we’d be back to barter. Which would be really inconvenient.
- The world-wide-web. Some of us are old enough to remember the times before. No on-demand news, music, entertainment, chatting, reservations, e-commerce and all the others.
Generally, larger networks are more valuable than smaller networks: if you are the only person in the world who has a telephone, that phone is not worth much. If there are 2 people with phones, you can at least call each other. With 3 people, 3 different conversations can be had. With 4, it’s 6. With 100, it’s 100*99/2 = 4950 possible conversations, not counting multi-party conference calls. This quadratic growth of value with the size of the network applies to all networks, according to Metacalfe’s Law.
But in this post, I want to look at another dimension of networks that impacts their values, and that is whether the network is “open” or “closed”. There are lots of details one could consider, but for our purposes here, we define a spectrum with two extremes, and lots of gray in the middle:
Fully open Somewhere in between Entirely closed Anybody can connect to the network and do what they like, nobody's permission is required. Who may connect, and what they may do on the network, is closely controlled by the network proprietor.
There can be all sorts of network proprietors, but for simplicity in this post, assume it’s a single entity, like Meta.
Here are some examples:
Fully open Somewhere in between Entirely closed The public road system. Roads on a private golf course. Buyers and sellers using cash. Buyers and sellers using Visa. Internal company accounting system. The world-wide web. Facebook. Twitter. The old AOL walled garden.
If you had two networks that are otherwise identical in size, structure and function, except that one is open and the other one is closed, which of those two is more valuable?
Valuable to whom?
Fully open Somewhere in between Entirely closed Valuable to:
- Platform proprietor: no, does not exist
- Network users: yes
- Platform proprietor: yes
- Network users: yes
It’s clear that if both networks produce the same amount of total value, the open network is more valuable to its users (such as individuals and organizations), for the simple reason that there is no network proprietor who needs to get paid! The value entirely accrues to the network participants.
But there’s more to it: Cory Doctorow recently coined the term enshittification to describe the inevitable march of platform/network proprietors, over time, to siphon off an ever-larger percentage of value generated by their network, to the detriment of its users. So the older a closed network, the less value it provides to its users. (Facebook users experience this every day: ever more ads, ever less genuine human engagement. While, for its business users, ad prices go up.) In an open network, on the other hand, the value that accrues to the users does not deteriorate over time.
And finally: could AOL, the online service, ever have provided the same value as the open web? Of course absolutely not! Open networks allow many more technologists and entrepreneurs to innovate in a gazillion different ways that would never be possible in a closed network. As closed networks mature, not only do they enshittify, but they also further and further discourage innovation by third parties, while the opposite is true for open networks.
Which brings us to the Fediverse. Which is more valuable today: the decentralized, open social network called the Fediverse (with its thousands of independently operated Mastodon, and other instances), or the poster closed social network, Facebook?
Clearly, Facebook. That’s because by all counts, Facebook today has order-of-magnitude about 1000 times the number of users of the Fediverse. Same for Twitter, which has maybe 100 times the number of users of the Fediverse.
But the network effect is the only thing the closed social platforms have going for themselves. All other parts of the value proposition favors the open social network alternative. Think of this:
- The Fediverse extracts far less / no value: no annoying ads, no user manipulation favoring the business model of the network proprietor.
- More functionality: it’s one interoperable social network with apps that emulate Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Reddit, Goodreads, and many others! In the same network.
- It’s entirely open for innovation, and innovators are building furiously as we speak. By its nature, it’s permanently locked open for innovation, and there is no danger of ever getting cut off from an API, facing sudden connection charges or drawing the wrath of a gazillionaire.
So by the time the Fediverse has sufficient numbers of users, it’s game over for proprietary social networks. This is true for both user categories in social networks: individuals and businesses. (I assume here that businesses and the Fediverse will find a way of accommodating each other, mainly by businesses behaving respectfully. If not, there simply will be no businesses in the Fediverse.) Individuals will get more value from the open network, and businesses will be far more profitable because there is no network operator to pay and many products and services pop up all the time that won’t in the closed network.
Note that the critical “sufficient number of users” can likely be substantially smaller than the user populations of those closed networks today, because all value accrues to users and it’s not diminished by value extraction from a network proprietor. For many of my own use cases, in many niches the Fediverse has critical mass today already.
Can the user advantage be overcome across the board? We will have to see. But if we add up just numbers of active users of organizations that have publicly announced Fediverse plans as of the date that I’m writing this, or even have products already in the market – Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, Tumblr, Wordpress and more – we’re already in the high 100’s of millions.
Those numbers look awfully close to the user numbers necessary to overcome Metcalfe’s Law.
tldr; The time to take the Fediverse seriously, for individuals and businesses, is now. The value of the Fediverse for everybody is much higher than the value of any closed, proprietary social network – other than the proprietary social network companies themselves. And we won’t cry for them very much.
Note: FediForum is next week, where we’ll discuss this.
[Meta is] exploring a standalone decentralized social network for sharing text updates. We believe there’s an opportunity for a separate space where creators and public figures can share timely updates about their interests (Source).
Their new app is codenamed P92, and according to a separate report by Moneycontrol:
… will support ActivityPub, the decentralised social networking protocol powering Twitter rival Mastodon and other federated apps (Source).
It will also:
be Instagram-branded and will allow users to register/login to the app through their Instagram credentials.
First, the good news:
This is a huge validation of the decentralized social network known as the Fediverse, built around a set of internet protocol standards that include ActivityPub, ActivityStreams, WebFinger as well as a set of commonly implemented unofficial extensions. The Fediverse has been around for some years, but recently came to more widespread prominence through its leading implementation, Mastodon, as the leading alternative of increasingly erratic (and increasingly many other things, but I digress…) Twitter.
That’s because only when alternatives are actually beginning to look like they might become serious threats to incumbents – and Meta is the market-leading incumbent in social media by far – do incumbents start paying attention and then connect to them. Or, as it may be the case here, simply leak that they might be connecting in the future but never actually will. We don’t know which of those will turn out to be true, but it doesn’t matter: both validate the Fediverse as a serious competitor to Meta.
This is on the heels of recent Fediverse adoption by companies such as Mozilla, Medium, CloudFlare and Flipboard. Apple now has Mastodon content previews in iMessage. Even Microsoft has been spotted in the Fediverse a few days ago.
I have some Brooklyn Bridges for sale. You get a Brooklyn Bridge for free if you believe that a company like Meta would connect to the Fediverse, and be a perfect citizen the way the Fediverse expects you to be today. Including:
- No ads;
- No tracking;
- No algorithms that favor business outcomes for Meta over your wellbeing;
- Respect for different cultures, minorities, non-mainstream behavior etc.;
- A rich toolset for filtering and blocking according what you decide you want to filter and block, not Meta;
- The ability to move from one host to another without having to build your network from scratch;
- The ability to pick who is your system administrator and moderator, from models that are essential centrally managed to full-fledged self-managed, user-owned cooperatives;
- The ability, and encouragement, to innovate with new apps;
- and so forth.
Instead, based on the history of technology, the chances are overwhelming that such an app would be used by Meta with an embrace, extend and extinguish strategy, at the end of which the Fediverse would either have become irrelevant or effectively been taken over by Meta. So the much-heralded alternative to Twitter would become … Meta? I sure hope not.
If you think that is unlikely, read up on some of the historical examples listed on that Wikipedia page. Merely being based on open standards and having a million+ strong user community does not protect you at all. Instead, I would say the attack happens every single time a network dominated by an incumbent (here: social media) is threatened by a more open network. And it succeed, at least partially, more often than not. Here it is Meta’s $100b+ business that’s under strategic threat, of course they will protect it and use any means they can think of to do so.
It does not help that the Fediverse today is chronically underfunded and has corresponding difficulty to compete at the same speed as somebody like Meta can. Actually, “unfunded” is a better term because the amounts are so small. There are many unpaid contributions, the Fediverse largely being open source and all, but I’d be surprised if more than $10m per year are spent in total on the entire Fediverse today, likely it’s far less. If Meta can burn more than $10b – that’s one entire annual fediverse spend every 8 hours! – on a very doubtful Metaverse project, they surely could find the same amount of money to protect their core business.
And that’s just one of the many issues we need to solve to protect, and grow, the beautiful thing we currently have with the Fediverse.
So what shall we do about all this?
(I welcome your comments – in the Fediverse! Find me at @firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(Also, I’m co-organizing FediForum, an online unconference at the end of March, where we will surely discuss this and other issues. And celebrate the Fediverse, because there is much to celebrate! Join us?)
March 29 and 30
Like many, I have been watching the destruction of Twitter by its new owner with utter fascination. If it was problematic in many ways before, Musk-Twitter is far worse, and there are no signs it will ever return to the state that many of us, myself included, mostly enjoyed.
Fortunately, there are alternatives, led by Mastodon and a rapidly-growing list of Fediverse apps that all interoperate thanks to a number of open protocols such as WebFinger, ActivityPub and Activity Vocabulary. Millions of people have created accounts there in recent months, and over a million new users have become regulars.
But there are growing pains and many open questions, such as:
- The underlying protocol standards are currently essentially unmaintained, and real-implementations don’t exactly match how the standards were intended. How will this situation be resolved?
- How do we create and maintain a safe space for traditionally disenfranchised people?
- The Fediverse currently depends on much unpaid volunteer work. How long can that go well? What if another million users (or more!) join, and the novelty effect wears off?
- Should brands be allowed in?
- Is #Fediblock the best we can do for moderation?
- How do we keep the character of the place if (when!) large organizations come in that bring lots of new users, and, in comparison, large budgets?
- Who decides?
Conversations need to be had, in a form that encourages problem solving. That’s the kind of space we are trying to create with FediForum: where people meet who want to move the Fediverse forward: on technology, on funding, on operations, on governance, and perhaps on culture.
Because if we don’t, there’s a real chance the once-in-a-generation opportunity to build better social media passes, and I really, really don’t want that to happen. I hope you don’t either.
So, if you love Mastodon or any other post-Twitter social media apps, and have an opinion on the future of social media, join us and help figure it out together with others who think similarly. The first event will be on-line; we hope to be able to do an in-person event later this year.
More info: FediForum.org
Signs are pointing that Apple will announce its first headset in the next few months. This would be a major new product for Apple – and the industry beyond –, but there is very little excitement in the air.
We can blame Meta for that. After buying Oculus, iterating over the product for almost 9 years since, and reportedly spending more than $10 billion a year on it, their VR products remains a distinct Meh. I bought a Quest 2 myself, and while it definitely has some interesting features (I climbed Mt Everest, in VR!), it mostly sits on the shelf, gathering dust.
So the industry consensus is that Apple’s won’t amount to much either. If Meta couldn’t find compelling use cases, the thinking goes, Apple won’t either, because there aren’t any! (Other than some limited forms of gaming and some niche enterprise ones.)
I think this line of thinking would be a mistake.
My argument: Apple understands their customers and works down their use cases better than anybody. If Apple works on a new product category for many years – and signs are that they have – and then finally decides that the product is ready, chances are, it is. Their track record on new products is largely unblemished since the return of Jobs about 25 years ago:
- fruity fun design for a computer (iMac) – success
- digital music player (iPod) – smashing success
- smartphone (iPhone) – so successful it killed and reinvented an entire industry
- table (iPad) – success
- watch (iWatch) – success
- … and many smaller products, like headsets, voice assistance, Keynote etc.
Looking for a major dud in those 25 years, I can’t really find one. (Sure, some smaller things like the 25-year anniversary Mac – but that was always a gimmick, not a serious product line.)
It appears that based on their history, betting against Apple’s headset is not a smart move. Even if we can’t imagine why an Apple headset would be compelling before we see it: we non-Apple people didn’t predict iPhone either, but once we saw it, it was “immediately” obvious.
So let’s turn this around. What about we instead assume the headset will be a major success? Then what?
I believe this would transform the entire technology industry profoundly. For historical analogies, I would have to go back all the way to the early 80’s when graphical user interfaces first became widely used – coincidentally (or not) an Apple accomplishment: they represented a fundamentally different way of interacting with computers than the text terminals that came before them. Xerox Parc gave that demo to many people. Nobody saw the potential and went with it, just Apple did. And they pulled a product together that caused the entire industry to transform. Terminals are still in use, but only by very few people for very specific tasks (like system administrators).
What if AR/VR interfaces swept the world as the GUI swept the PC?
I believe they can, if somebody relentlessly focuses on uses cases and really makes them work. I built my first 3D prototype in VRML in 1997. It was compelling back then and it would be today. Those uses can be found, I’m quite certain.
Based on everything we’ve seen, it’s clear that Meta won’t find them. Hanging out with your friends who don’t look like your friends in some 3D universe is just not it. But if anybody can do it, it’s Apple.
So I’m very much looking forward to seeing what they came up with, and I think you should be, too.
All you need is a gazillionaire doing strange things to some internet platform, and all of a sudden decentralized social media soars in adoption. So lots of people are suddenly seriously looking at how to contribute, myself included.
None of them are particularly easy to understand. So I did a bit of drawing just to make it clearer (for myself) what kind of data can be shipped around in the Fediverse. To be clear, this is only a small part of the overall stack, but an important one.
Here are some diagrams. They are essentially inheritance diagrams that show what kinds of activities there are, and actors, etc. Posted here in case they are useful for others, too.
And here’s how to interpret my homegrown graphical notation. (I made it up for my dissertation eons ago, and used it ever since. It has certain advantages over, say, UML or traditional ERA diagram styles. IMHO :-))
Why should other countries have all the fun with exploding prices for base resources, like heating in the UK, or all kinds of energy across Europe?
Nasdaq has an index for open-market wholesale prices for water in the US West, mostly California. Currently, it is in the order of a $1000 per acre-foot, while the non-drought price seems to be about $250.