Thoughts on Threads and ActivityPub

December 15, 2023

Threads has been promising to join the fediverse since the product launched. Now it looks like it’s starting to roll out. A lot of people are really concerned about this and are threatening to defederate from Threads if/when it arrives. I don’t get it.

I’m personally really excited! I have a Threads account, but I don’t check it regularly. If Threads supporting ActivityPub means that I can follow Threads users, I’m all for this! I’ll be able to use my favourite third-party Mastodon client to follow some people who’d likely never join Mastodon. Great!

I understand some of the hesitation. Meta isn’t my favourite company. They also have a lot of resources to throw around. Already, Threads has something like ten times the number of users as Mastodon. I’ve heard people suggest that Meta might Embrace, Extend, Extinguish ActivityPub and services like Mastodon, and so it’s best to proactively cut Threads off.

This seems odd to me for a couple of reasons. First, ActivityPub is an open standard. I personally think more companies should embrace standards! Yes, as a big company, Meta could have oversized influence on ActivityPub, but I don’t think that’s necessarily bad. The ActivityPub standard has been mostly dormant since January 2018 and I think there’s room for improvement.

The Embrace, Extend, Extinguish argument also falls down at the last point for me: Extinguish. This is a tremendous amount of effort that Meta is undertaking to try and… what? Stop the fediverse from growing? Defeat Mastodon, Meta’s mighty competitor? I think both of these goals are extremely small potatoes. I really don’t think the fediverse was ever in danger of bothering Meta in the future. Maybe I’m wrong here, but I feel that the worst case isn’t that bad. If Meta tries to subvert the ActivityPub standard, that will be a shame. But it’s still an open standard and Mastodon has agency here as well. If the standard has to fork, that’s not the end of the world.

Other people have brought up the example of Jabber/XMPP and Google Talk 1. I find this to be a stronger argument but I’m still not sold. Yes, Jabber was an open standard that a lot of chat clients could use to interoperate. Google then used this for its chat service, but then stopped interoperating with standard Jabber/XMPP clients. This left a lot of people in the lurch, and that’s terrible.

Google has, perhaps, the worst track record for chat clients and for killing their products in general. It’s a real shame how Jabber/XMPP users were effectively “ghosted” by the far more numerous Google Talk userbase, but does this mean that we should ignore any efforts form big companies to support open standards forever now? Weren’t things good while everything did interoperate? Is it absolutely inevitable that Meta is going to do something terrible with ActivityPub? If so, will we have to be passive participants?

To me, the worst case seems to be that things return to way they are before Threads started supporting ActivityPub. This obviously isn’t ideal, but I would be fine with it. I understand that it will affect some people more than me, but it’s also far from guaranteed to happen. In the meantime, this seems like an earnest act by Meta to embrace the open web, and I’m willing to go with it while the going’s good.

Put another way: would I go back in time and tell myself not to use Twitter because it turned out to eventually be something I didn’t like? No! It was amazing for a long time, and helped build my career.

Overall, people should do whatever they think is right. The wonderful thing about running a Mastodon instance is getting to make your own choices. Me, I’m siding with Eugen Rochko, Mastodon’s creator. When Threads launched, he wrote a piece articulating his thoughts and I think they still stand up well. If we’re going to promote open standards, they actually have to be open. That means everyone should be able to use them, even if they’re a huge company.

  1. In the linked post, it’s remembered as “Google Chat”, which is a product that launched in 2017. I write this not to be pedantic, but to help with my future point. Google has launched and killed approximately a zillion chat services and it’s hard to keep track at this point.