Meta implements ActivityPub? Not so fast.

By Johannes Ernst


The Fediverse is in a state of (nervous!) excitement about the second leak this past week (after the first one back in March) that Meta is building a “text-based social app” for “creators and public figures”, variously code-named P92, Barcelona, or “Instagram for your thoughts” and which “could comes as soon as June”.

Why the nervous excitement? Because both leaks state it “will be compatible with some other apps like Mastodon”.

Many commentators have jumped to the conclusion that Meta will implement ActivityPub and participate in the Fediverse just like other ActivityPub-enabled app (even if it might bring ads or such). I believe this conclusion is wrong.

Meta is much more likely to use this “compatibility” story as:

  1. a public relations / positioning coup to create good vibes for the new app among important thought leaders (it’s already working, see above!); and

  2. to present itself as the good guy in its fight with Twitter, which is the real target here.

  3. Use it as an avenue to siphon of current (and prospective) Fediverse users into their own app.

Let’s see what the evidence there is for my belief. I’m working mostly off the more recent “primary” leak source here:

  1. Last week’s leak does not say “will implement ActivityPub”. The term “ActivityPub” does not appear at all. (The March leak does have the term, but it is unattributed and the Meta spokesperson they quote does not mention it.)

  2. The leak does not say “Meta will implement one (or more) standard protocols for connecting social applications”. There is nothing about favoring a standards-based approach in the leak, and certainly not a commitment to it, like they would have for other standards in other areas.

  3. The leak says “Will be compatible with some other apps like Mastodon”. Carefully parse this, specifically:

    • It does not say how it will be compatible. It could be, for example, by using the Mastodon-specific client API, or a combination of client and server/ActivityPub API. That might be helpful to Mastodon (maybe?) but not the rest of the Fediverse.
    • It gives no hint as to what they mean by “compatible”. If you think nicely working, bidirectional exchange of social media posts with everybody in the Fediverse you are jumping to a conclusion that is not backed by what has been said.
    • Why do they say “compatible with some other apps like Mastodon”, instead of “compatible with all other apps speaking ActivityPub”? This sounds far more selective, and subject to bilateral business agreements, than “any app that speaks the standard”.
  4. And then there is this: “Users on other apps will be able search for, follow and interact with your profile and content [on the Meta app]”. Were you looking for the inverse: “Users on the Meta app will be able to search for, follow and interact with any Fediverse profile?” Because it’s not there. Indeed it would have been much simpler to say “Users in all compatible apps will be able to …” but they don’t say that.

This latter point is important: On Facebook, famously, you can post links “out” to any web page on the internet. However, you cannot link “in” from any page on the internet to an arbitrary Facebook post. Unlike other social networks like Twitter, Facebook is very asymmetric.

Facebook/Meta has a history of asymmetric implementations of what everybody would otherwise think are and should be symmetrical systems. This very much reads to me like Fediverse users can follow Meta users, but Meta users cannot follow Fediverse users. If they do this, it would wreck the value proposition of the Fediverse, I would think.

Now these are all leaks, and as such, we should have very limited confidence in their truth, accuracy and completeness, and the accuracy of any analysis based on them such as mine. The proof will be in the app when they release it.

But: in the meantime, we should be asking ourselves the question: what if Meta does not play a fair game here? What if they implement things to favor themselves to the detriment of everybody else, such a asymmetric implementations, all under the guys of playing nice with open-source apps such as Mastodon? Certainly that’s what we should expect based on their behavior in the past.