The future of social media looks a lot like email
The battle for the future of social media is heating up, and open web standards are at the center
If you’ve been hearing about the new social media app BlueSky, you’re not alone. Everyone on Twitter has been clamoring to get a BlueSky invite, aside from the Musk diehards. Even President Biden hasn’t been able to get an invite. (BlueSky has made a rule that no heads of state are allowed on the platform while it is still in Beta.)
I’ve already explained why Twitter users might be inclined to leave Musk’s Tweetdom in my post about Elon.
But what’s more fascinating about this situation are the platforms people are flocking to: federated social media sites based on open source protocols.
The two biggest of these platforms are Mastodon and BlueSky. If they succeed in their mission and enough people switch to these platforms, it could change the way we use social media platforms forever.
Short-Form Communication Broadcasts changed the world
An example of how my local city government, the City of Raleigh, utilizes short-form communication via the Twitter platform.
Over the past decade, many organizations have demonstrated the important use of short-form communication broadcasts. For example, the National Weather Service has used Twitter to issue alerts, power companies have used it to provide updates about outages, local governments have used it to announce changes going on in the city, and the State Department has used it to warn travelers about dangerous situations in foreign countries.
This technology can be powerful and even save lives. It should not be controlled by a single company.
That was the belief of Jack Dorsey, the co-Founder of Twitter, who spun out Bluesky in 2019 to create an open web protocol for social media. Which is why Bluesky looks exactly like Twitter.
Bluesky’s app design from its listing in the App Store.
The AT Protocol (Authenticated Transfer Protocol) is the result of Dorsey’s Bluesky effort. (Note the AT Protocol is pronounced “at” not “A,T.” It’s like the @ symbol Twitter made famous.)
The AT Protocol is a federated social protocol that allows users to connect with each other across different platforms. For example, if Instagram spun out a Twitter clone that supported the AT Protocol, users on both platforms could connect with each other. Users can follow each other, and posts can show up on multiple platforms. You can also change hosts, which means you can move your account from one platform to another without losing your followers or content. Account portability is one of the unique features that makes the AT Protocol stand apart from ActivityPub, another federated protocol popularized by Mastodon.
Email works in a similar way to these social media protocols. Gmail users can email other users from different email services, such as Hey or Yahoo! It is also easy to switch email providers. You can move your content from one provider to another, and you can set up forwarding addresses so that messages sent to your old email address will also be delivered to your new account. Email is the open protocol, Gmail is the service.
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Another example of a thriving open web standard is RSS. When an episode from your favorite podcast is uploaded, it's available via an RSS feed. No matter what podcast player you choose, you can still listen to the same Podcast episode. RSS is the open web standard, the podcast players are the platforms built around that standard.
An example of how a service like transistor.fm uses RSS to push out podcasts episodes to various podcast players.
Bluesky’s AT Protocol and Mastodon’s ActivityPub protocol promise a similar open experience.
Imagine a world where you are on Bluesky and post a skeet (the unofficial term for posts on the service), that post would be seen by other users on Bluesky that follow you. Those posts could also be seen by anyone who follows you on other platforms that support the AT protocol.
You only have to post once and can choose to have it appear on other platforms.
This is a much better experience than what exists today, where you have to post the same content on multiple social platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.
Federated protocols have the potential to unleash innovation and competition
The ironic nature of today’s social media landscape and flirtation with more open ecosystems is we’ve technically been here before. In the early days of Twitter, there were multiple third-party clients that allowed users to interact with the platform in different ways. These clients, like TweetDeck and Tweetie, innovated on how to display and interact with Twitter, and they helped to make the platform more user-friendly and engaging.
The same could happen with Bluesky and Mastodon. Though the two protocols underpinning each of these platforms compete against each other today, this will not always be the case. It’s likely these platforms will eventually coalesce around just one protocol or the two will merge.
Until then, ActivityPub and the AT Protocol will still allow developers to create new and innovative social media apps that are not limited by the constraints of closed platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Imagine a social media ecosystem where you have the freedom to choose the apps that you want to use. You could choose apps that don't have an attention-sucking infinity scroll, or apps that allow you to customize their algorithms, content filters, and timelines. The possibilities are endless.
Network Effects will still exist
Of course, like with email, network effects are likely to take hold in the world of federated social media. Social media is uniquely susceptible to network effects, a phenomenon in which the value of a product or service increases as the number of users increases.
Influential people being on a platform can amplify this phenomenon, which helps explain Twitter's outsized influence on our culture for the past decade. No one wants to go on a social platform that no one else is on. When influential figures like AOC, Ryan Johnson, and Dril started appearing on Bluesky a few weeks ago, the platform began to gain popularity.
Even if federated social media platforms have network effects, there will still be room for smaller, niche platforms to exist. After all, many people still use email clients other than Gmail and Outlook, even though those two clients are the most popular. Similarly, a federated environment for social media and short-form web broadcasts would still be an improvement over the current centralized system.
As Elon Musk's Twitter takeover falters, Bluesky and Mastodon are gaining popularity. The race to a federated social media future has begun.