Meta has gradually locked down all of its apps. Now they are coming out with a Twitter competitor that, according to all reports, will have ActivityPub standards support. This promises to make it interoperable with other social networking apps like Mastodon in the broader Fediverse decentralized social network.
The Fediverse is in uproar, debating fiercely how to react to it, with a sizable group of operators already promising to block them out of the gate, mostly on the grounds that Meta is the personification of everything that the Fediverse is against: tracking, surveillance, manipulation, advertising.
But why would Meta support ActivityPub in the first place? It is completely out of character for them. I would suggest that only if we understand Meta’s goals with ActivityPub support can we make a rational assessment what, if anything, we should do to react.
First, let’s dispense with this first commonly cited reason why they do this. It does not pass muster.
1. Meta wishes to leverage today’s Fediverse to get started, and then embrace and extinguish it.
No, it does not. Two good arguments:
Numbers: Alex Heath is reporting that “Meta is hoping for at least tens of millions of users within the first few months of availability”. The Fediverse currently has between 1 and 2 million active monthly users. So Meta is expecting at least 10x of those numbers by the end of the year.
(If you think of it, of course they want those kinds of numbers. Both Facebook and Instagram have far more than a billion users each. Why would they build another app if they didn’t think they would get at least 100 million users?)
Embrace and extend is an entirely ineffective strategy if what you want to embrace and extend has only a tenth of the users you want “in just a few months”. It is not worth to embark on such a complex strategy if it only works for a month or two at best.
Would you really go to market focused on an initial customer segment that contains all the people – and perhaps only those people – most actively hostile to you as a company?
Let’s move on to a more likely reason:
2. Meta observed that Elon cut off many third-party apps from Twitter, and wants to attract those third-party developers to the new app so the new app can more effectively compete with Twitter.
This is a more compelling reason. Building an ecosystem of complementary apps and services is a tried-and-true, successful strategy to compete against a product that does not have them. And which just burned its bridges with the developer community by cutting them off out of the blue.
However: if that was goal, why would they implement standardized ActivityPub, as opposed to simply creating a (proprietary) API, like Meta has for its other products? It’s not like the cut-off Twitter app developers will require a standard API to come to Meta: not losing their business is good enough for them. Also, implementing a standard protocol comes with substantial costs and risks to Meta, including its inability to change it on a whim when Meta’s business circumstances should change.
Verdict: INSUFFICIENT as an explanation.
3. The European Union is coming down hard on Meta, demanding all sorts of interoperability as part of its Digital Services and Digital Market Acts. By implementing a bona-fide W3C interoperability standard as part of a new app, Meta can signal both cooperation with the EU authorities, while delaying opening its core business as long as possible.
In the US, we tend to ignore changes in European law. We also seem to consider it inconceivable that any meaningful jurisdiction would actually pass the kinds of laws that they have been passing left and right. But they have, and the EU commission is not kidding with enforcement either. While Meta may decide to leave Canada to not have to comply with certain Canadian laws, they cannot afford to leave an affluent, almost half-billion people market.
I’m sure Meta is embarking on a multi-pronged strategy to resist, including lobbying, lawsuits, dragging their feet, and all sorts of other things. This multi-pronged strategy probably also means they have to throw the regulators a bone, on occasion. What better than to do this with a new product where there is no downside to an existing business, because there is no existing business? And if that helps with improving brand image – which it does – and appeal to 3rd-party developers, which the incumbent just turned against themselves, why not?
Verdict: MOST PLAUSIBLE.
If this analysis is more or less correct, this has consequences both for what Meta will doing going forward, and what today’s Fediverse should do to prepare and react. More in another piece. Follow me in the Fediverse to stay in the loop.
Updated 2023-06-30: Added Digital Markets Act in addition to the Digital Services Act.
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