I’m Rooting for ActivityPub

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read
I’m Rooting for ActivityPub

Some people on Mastodon are really upset that Instagram seems primed to join “the fediverse” by integrating to some extent into ActivityPub. I’ve stated my opinion on this matter already, but I wanted to add to this to say I’m more invested in ActivityPub than I am in Mastodon. Put another way, I’m more invested in RSS than I am in Inoreader, if that makes any sense.

RSS is an open standard used by the whole internet, and it allows me to follow basically any feed on content in whatever way I want. I never go to The Verge’s home page, I just follow their RSS feed and read however I want. I also use RSS to follow YouTube channels and podcasts. You can even use RSS to follow Mastodon accounts! And relevant to the conversation of Meta building on ActivityPub, some of the most heinous websites in the world have RSS built in, but that's what you get with an open standard: everyone can use it, even people who you don't like. If you want total control over who gets to use a system, it just can't be open.

Ultimately what I like about RSS is that it allows me to follow a wide variety of things through one unified interface. I use Inoreader and Reeder, but I could swap those out if something better comes along.

I see ActivityPub as RSS for the social web. It’s not a perfect comparison, but in the same way Inoreader manages my RSS subscriptions and Reeder is my front-end for interacting with those subs, Mastodon is what manages my ActivityPub subs and Ivory is the front-end I use to interact with them. After all, I'm not just following Mastodon accounts, I'm following some people on and Pixelfed as well. hell, I follow someone who's integrated their blog to ActivityPub, so their posts appear in my timeline. And not links to the post, but the content of the post itself!

And I'm doing this all from my own server, so I'm in control over what I can and can't do. While some Mastodon servers debate blocking Instagram's upcoming app from talking to people on their instance, I don't need to worry about this at all since I can make my own rules for myself. Obviously, most people will not be running their own server, but I think it's a good thing that people can switch servers relatively easily (it could be better, though) and if they want they can spin up their own and have complete control over everything.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that while I like Mastodon for myself and my nerd friends, what I really love is ActivityPub. My dream is that it ends up like RSS, where it's almost everywhere, but it's invisible if you don't know what to look for. I would bet that the vast majority of The Verge readers go to the site in their web browser, and many of them probably don't even know what RSS is. But for the few of us who really care about this sort of thing, RSS means we can control our experience as much as we'd like.

Similarly, the vast, vast majority of Instagram's new social media app won't know or care what ActivityPub is, but it might mean that nerds like me can continue to use Mastodon to talk to our nerdy friends, but we can also follow some more mainstream people. Hell, wouldn't it be great if the "Mastodon sucks" crowd joins this new Instagram app, only to be followed by people on Mastodon because of the magic of ActivityPub? That sounds great to me.

Yes, yes, the recent trend of leaders like Musk and Huffman giving users like me the middle finger because they don't make as much money off us as they'd like is troubling, but I'm not prepared to wallow in nihilism while I think the world can't get any better in the future. Some things will get worse and more closed down, but maybe, just maybe we have something here in ActivityPub that lets social networks open up just a bit.