On The Web, The Best Outcome Is Email

Like many out there, I've been thinking a lot lately about the Open Web. As many readers are no doubt aware, the chaos at Twitter lately has driven a lot of people off the platform and onto more fledgling alternatives. Mastodon in particular has seen huge spikes in growth recently and I doubt that growth will slow until either the platform succumbs to the load or the chaos at Twitter ends and users return to the platform.

A chart of Mastodon's recent user growth with large spikes around significant Twitter changes
Image credit to Esteban Moro

While these recent developments have been great for Mastodon as a platform, only time will tell if the Fediverse at-large will rise to the occasion. There's been a lot of talk about Mastodon.social the website, but the real story is the sudden surge in usage of the underlying ActivityPub federation protocol that powers it. Very briefly, ActivityPub is a protocol that allows for disparate social media sites to talk to each other, sharing likes, posts, follows, and other social media interactions. Widespread adoption of such a standard on the Web would make it possible to finally break the tyranny of the Network Effect and allow for a wide swath of new Social Networks to emerge. These new networks would be free of the burden to attract a "critical mass" of users to remain viable as every user would be able to communicate and interact with users of any other ActivityPub-capable social platform.

The hurdle that Mastodon —and the swath of other ActivityPub sites like it— must overcome is that they all collectively must reach a critical mass in order to become viable in today's siloed social media landscape. In order to free us from critical mass, Mastodon must attain it.

The fog of current events leave many questions so far unanswered, and only time will tell what path we choose to follow, but for now it is not known whether or not Mastodon will ever reach this critical point and become a sizable player in the social media space. Tumblr's plans to enable ActivityPub support will certainly help the broader Fediverse grow, but I doubt it will be enough on its own to push the project over the edge and into relevancy with the general public, but only time will tell.

Sailing Rough Seas

I've been a vocal supporter of the Open Web for over a decade, but as anyone with a strongly-held and niche belief knows, it can be exhausting to see the world march on impartial to your goals. At my worst, I've grown rather jaded about the possibility of a truly Open Social Web. Like I'm sure many dentists, if given the chance, would choose to wave a magic wand and force all of us to floss our teeth more, I would —if I could— force social media sites to interoperate using a freely open standard, but that's just not how the world works.

For years, I've thought the momentum had settled and that we would —given no other outside forces— be on a path to ever-increasing centralization on the Web, both on and off social media. There are of course many technical solutions to centralization, but I'll admit that I believe the forces of power, control, and profits too strong a wind for the little boat of federation to sail. The only other boats to make the journey set out long ago: both web browsers and email were products of another era on the Internet and I doubt they could come up in this one.

I now hold that the most likely path to achieving a truly interoperable Open Web is through government regulation. I've written before about how Congress is mulling over the idea of mandating Social Media interoperability and I support that effort, but regulation is a difficult stick to wield. The backbones of the modern Web: the web browser and email provider, didn't need laws to force them into interoperability. They were designed as such from the start, and that still is the best way for a technology to progress. Like the situation with phone networks last century, regulation might be the only force powerful enough to push a Social Web forward. I still hope that social media follows a similar path and that we all hold hands and merrily walk into the sunset of a federated world, but I believe that things are likely too far gone; that it never can or will happen like that again.

I have grown fairly confident in this belief, and like any belief too strongly-held it blinded me to what happened next.

An Impetus of Change

Elon Musk's chaotic and seemingly-inept takeover of Twitter shocked many people into giving up on the platform. Thousands upon thousands fled to whatever refuge they could find. Mastodon was an obvious choice for techies to flock to, but its Mastodon's growing segment of less technical users that interests me. Perhaps this new flood of growth holds —and assuming the platform in general and mastodon.social in particular can withstand it— there exists a real possibility that the platform gains critical mass and enters public awareness. It may already be arriving there. The San Diego Union Tribune ran a story last sunday (in print) aiming to help elderly users navigate the migration to Mastodon. That was something I certainly hadn't seen coming.

I'll say this: if the trend holds and Mastodon does continue growing, and if it does gain a foothold as a small but nevertheless notable social platform it would mean that Elon fumbled his way into giving the Open Web the single biggest gift it has received in a decade and certainly the most unintentional one. It would be a poetically ironic moment indeed.

Again though, I'll admit that I am skeptical such a trend will hold. Social media platforms come and go and small ones rarely stick around very long. Mastodon will of course still exist —the Fediverse cannot be killed— but falling out of public consciousness would be a de facto death.

A Sobering Reality

Whether the crazed antics of one man can disrupt the seemingly natural flow of centralization on the Web is doubtful, and I still believe that is more likely than not that regulation will be required to force social media companies to interoperate. What's more, it isn't clear that such regulation could or would come to be in the United States. It might; it might not. The future, as always, remains unclear.

That said, Mastodon (and ActivityPub more broadly) have the potential to remake social networking on the Web in a magnitude that I don't think many fully realize. Indeed some do realize it, but they are often gripped by a naΓ―ve optimism I simply cannot share: a blue-sky fantasy that could never come to pass. The broader narrative though seems to take the opposite view: that even if Mastodon (and the Fediverse) were to become relevant, that it simply wouldn't matter very much. They argue that federation and decentralization simply cannot compete with monied interests and that over time the Open Web would re-centralize into one or two big players. Indeed I find myself sympathetic to this view, even though I don't like its conclusions.

I, however, would like to offer a third option for the future of the Social Web: one that is both radically transformative and yet utterly boring at the same time.

What If It's All Just Email, Man?

I love email. I genuinely do. I love it in a way that often raises eyebrows among nearly everyone I encounter, even my fellow techie-types. Why do I love email? Because it, like the Web itself has remained true to the promise of the Internet even after it made unavoidable contact with the real world. Let me explain:

Email, like the Web itself, is a federated system. No one controls the whole thing and while there are a few very large players in the Email space, none of them has the ability to direct its evolution outright. Gmail is huge and partially non-standard, but the system still works. Since its inception, anyone with an email address has been able to email anyone else so long as they know or can guess the email address they want to reach. It's not a perfect system, no (see: spam, blocklisting, etc) but it's damn good and email has utterly transformed how the world does business and it has democratized communication more than almost any other Internet technology to date.

What's more, barring some technical hurdles, anyone with some funding can start an email hosting company. And while it's not practical for single individuals to run their own email server today, it is technically possible and many people indeed do just that. Every year new Email apps and services emerge while others die. The ecosystem is dynamic, healthy, and growing with every new entrant to the Internet. The standard is open, widely available, and —unlike social media accounts— truly universal. Nearly everyone on the Internet has an email address, and that seems set to be true for decades to come.

We need no better signifier of Email's complete and utter domination today than the simple fact that email clients come installed on almost every operating system known to man. That's only possible because of its decentralized, universal, and long-lived history. I long for the day that an ActivityPub-powered "Social" app ships with macOS and Windows like Mail does today.

A truly federated macOS dock When a mail-like "Social.app" ships on macOS, we will have won.

Now, most people I talk to about this tell me they hate their email. It's a spam and junk-filled box full of nothing but coupons, ads, and check-ins from their boss. And I agree. It is just that. Indeed one of the problems with decentralized and federated technologies is exactly that: they're filled with spam, junk, and mixed uses. But that mundanity is the true magic.

Email has so throughly engrained itself in the modern world that we've stopped seeing any of the good it has brought and only the bad; a truer mark of success there isn't (see: liberal democracy, the post office, web browsers, the phone network, etc).

Should federated social media succeed: whether by natural growth, by chaos at Twitter, or by eventual regulation, its ultimate fate can and should be the fate of email. If somehow social media is largely run by enormous companies surrounded by a large collection of smaller providers all talking to each other over the same interoperable, open protocol then the Open Web will have won. Of course this won't be a win for those who imagine a truly decentralized Internet devoid of large actors, but it will be a success as judged by the best examples the Internet has so far given us.

The Social Web of the future isn't complete decentralization or a network of innumerable federated micro-instances. It isn't a Web powered by anonymous cryptocurrencies. It may yet be the Web we have now, should regulatory attempts fail and natural forces be insurmountable. But if things go right and the stars align the Social Web could become like Email, and that would be transformationally mundane.

Filed under: open web, mastodon
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