Meta/Threads Interoperating in the Fediverse Data Dialogue Meeting yesterday

By Johannes Ernst


I participated in a meeting titled “Meta’s Threads Interoperating in the Fediverse Data Dialogue” at Meta in San Francisco yesterday. It brought together a good number of Meta/Threads people (across engineering, product, policy), some Fediverse entrepreneurs like myself, some people who have been involved in ActivityPub standardization, a good number of industry observers / commentators, at least one journalist, and people from independent organizations whose objective is to improve the state of the net. Altogether about 30 people.

It was conducted under the Chatham House rule, so I am only posting my impressions, and I don’t identify people and what specific people said. (Although most attendees volunteered for a public group photo at the end; I will post a link when I get one. Photo added at the bottom of this post.)

For the purposes of this post, I’m not going to comment about larger questions such as whether Meta is good or bad, should be FediBlock’ed immediately or not; I’m simply writing down some notes about this meeting.

In no particular order:

  • The Threads team has been doing a number of meetings like this, in various geographies (London was mentioned), and with various stakeholders including the types of people that came to this meeting, as well as Fediverse instance operators, regulators and civil society.

  • Apparently many (most?) invitees to these meetings were invited because other invitees had been recommending them. I don’t know whether or what kind of future meetings like this they are planning, but I’d be happy to pass along names if we know each other and you get in touch. Thanks to – you know who you are – who passed along my name.

  • The Threads team comes across as quite competent and thoughtful at what they do.

  • On some subjects that are “obvious” to those of use who have hung around open federated systems long enough like myself, many attendees seemed strangely underinformed. I didn’t get the impression that they don’t want to know, but simply that integrating with the “there-is-nobody-in-charge” Fediverse is so different from other types of projects they have done in the past, they are still finding their bearings. I heard several: “A year ago, I did not know what the Fediverse was.”

  • Rolling out a large node – like Threads will be – in a complex, distributed system that’s as decentralized and heterogeneous as the Fediverse is not something anybody really has done before. It’s unclear what can go wrong, so the right approach appears to be to go step-by-step, feature by feature: try it, see how it works in practice, fix what needs fixing, and only then move on to the next feature.

  • That gradual approach opens them up to suspicions their implementation is one-sided and entirely self-serving. I guess that can’t be avoided until everything is deployed they publicly said they will deploy.

  • While there are many challenges, I did get the impression the project is proceeding more or less as planned, and there are no major obstacles.

  • Everybody knows and is aware Meta brings a “trust deficit” to the Fediverse. The best mitigation mentioned was to be as transparent as possible about all aspects of what they plan and do.

    I think that’s a good approach, but also that they can do far more on transparency than they have so far. For example, they could publicly share a roadmap and the engineering rationale for why the steps they identified need to be in this sequence.

  • There are many, many questions on many aspects of the Fediverse, from technical details, to operational best practices, to regulatory constraints and how they apply to a federated system. The group generally did not know, by and large, how to get them answered, but agreed that meetings like this serve as a means to connect with people who might know.

    I think this is a problem all across the Fediverse, not specific to Meta. We – the Fediverse – need to figure out a way to make that easier for new developers; certainly my own learning curve to catch up was steeper than I would have liked, too.

  • Many people did not know about FediForum, our Fediverse unconference, and I suspect a bunch of the meeting attendees will come to the next one (likely in March; we are currently working on picking a date). Many of the discussions at this meeting would have been right at home as FediForum sessions, and while I am clearly biased as FediForum organizer, I would argue that doing meetings like this in an open forum like FediForum could help substantially with the trust deficit mentioned above.

  • There’s significant interest in the Fediverse Test Suite we just got funding approval for from the EU’s NGI Zero program. There’s general agreement that the Fediverse could work “better”, be more reliable, and more be comprehensible to mainstream users, if we had better the test coverage than the Fediverse has today. This is of interest to all new (and existing) developers.

  • There was a very interesting side discussion on whether it would be helpful for Fediverse instances (including Threads) to share reputation information with other instances that each instance might maintain on individual ActivityPub actors for its own purposes already. Block lists as they are shared today are a (very primitive) version of this; a more multi-faceted version might be quite helpful across the Fediverse. This came up in a breakout group discussion, and was part of brainstorming; I didn’t hear that anybody actually worked on this.

  • When we think of privacy risks when Meta connects to the Fediverse, we usually think of what happens to data that moves from today’s Fediverse into Meta. I didn’t realize the opposite is also quite a challenge (personal data posted to Threads, making its way into the Fediverse) for an organization as heavily monitored by regulators around the world as is Meta.

  • There was very little talk (not none, but little) about the impact on regulation, such as the “continuous and real-time access” provision in the EU’s Digital Markets Act and whether that was a / the driver for Fediverse integration.

  • There was very little discussion on business models for Threads, and where exactly ads would go. For example, would ads just stay within the Threads app, or would they inject them into ActivityPub feeds, like some companies did with RSS back in the days? Of course, should that happen, as a non-Threads Fediverse user, one can always unfollow; there is no way for them to plaster non-Threads users with ads if they don’t interact with Threads accounts.

  • I came away convinced that the team working on Threads indeed genuinely wants to make federation happen, and have it happen in a “good” way. I did not get any sense whatsoever that any of the people I interacted were executing any secret agenda, whether embrace-and-extend, favoring Threads in some fashion or anything like that. (Of course, that is a limited data point, but I thought I convey it anyway.)

  • However, the meeting did not produce a clear answer to the elephant-in-the-room question that was raised repeatedly by several attendees in several versions, which is some version of: “All the openness with Threads, namely integration with the Fediverse, supporting account migration out from Threads etc, is the opposite of what Facebook/Meta has done over its history. What has fundamentally changed so that you now believe openness is the better strategy?” And: “In the past Facebook was a far more open system than it is today, you gradually locked it down. What guarantee is there that your bosses won’t follow the same playbook this time, even if you think they won’t?”

    Personally I believe this question needs a better answer than has been given publicly so far, and the answer needs to come from the very top of Meta. The statement must have staying power beyond what any one executive can deliver.

I left the meeting with far more questions than I could get answered; but nobody wanted to stay all night :-)

My gut feel is that it is safe to assume they will do a reasonably fair, responsible job with a gradual rollout of federation for at least the next year or two or such. Beyond that, and in particular if it turns out creators with large follower groups indeed move off Threads at a significant rate (one of the stated reasons why they are implementing Fediverse support as creators have asked for this), I don’t think we know at all what will happen. (I’m not sure that anybody knows at this point.) And of course, none of this addresses the larger issues that Meta has as an organization.

In the hope this summary was useful …

Group photo (opt-in)

(Source. Thanks tantek.com for initiating this.)