Rachel Lambert, a product manager at Meta, started her company’s journey towards interoperability by breaking Adam Mosseri’s Threads account.
In December, Meta activated a test where users could follow the head of Instagram’s Threads feed on an open-source social media platform, Mastodon. But when users tried to view Mosseri’s posts over on Mastodon, nothing showed up. Lambert’s team scrambled and contacted Mastodon engineers to resolve the technical issues.
Hiccups aside, the test was historic for Meta. From Facebook to Instagram, the company has typically walled off its apps from outside data, so interoperability on Threads is new territory for Meta employees to navigate.
“It’s always exciting to be able to take a big step like this. We’ve never decentralized one of our apps before,” Lambert says.
The social media giant plans to release more cross-network features this year. While it’s easy to get lost in the jargon of the Fediverse, ActivityPub, and other pushes toward an interoperable experience for social media, the big idea is simple. In the coming months, Threads users should gain the ability to follow accounts from other social networks and to publish posts that will appear not only in Threads but elsewhere on the social web.
The technology that makes this possible is ActivityPub. First launched in 2018, the software protocol enables cross-compatibility between niche corners of the social internet on the federated constellation of open networks collectively known as the Fediverse. These decentralized social networks have been around a while, but they were mainly populated by the most terminally online users—until the chaotic upending of Twitter under Elon Musk. The changes at X sent hordes of dissatisfied users out in search of newer, more welcoming homes for their memes and shitposts. Many landed in the Fediverse.
When Meta dropped Threads last summer, Mosseri emphatically promised to decentralize its feeds eventually. But building the mechanisms that allow Threads to plug into a collection of independent networks, even using an agreed-upon standard like ActivityPub, is a delicate undertaking if you’re a giant company like Meta. “We’re kind of like the big whale that’s coming into this conversation,” Lambert says. Some Fediverse administrators worry that Threads’ interoperability plans, coupled with Meta’s institutional prowess, could overpower the more diminutive alcoves on the decentralized internet.
Meta is treading carefully, doing a phased implementation while continuing conversations with Fediverse leaders. This will give the company more time to iron out some of the integration kinks. “Do we adapt the protocol to be able to support this?” Lambert asks. “Or do we try to do some kind of interesting, unique implementation?” Instead of the audio for voice posts, Meta considered federating text transcripts, but ultimately decided to stick with sharing the audio.
Lambert hesitates to put an exact timeline on the rollout of ActivityPub support, but she says general users may be able to access the new features in a couple of months. Access will first arrive for Threads accounts open to the public, and the activation process will be opt-in. “We have some milestones that we’re working towards,” Lambert says. “But I think we’re most invested in just making sure that the experience feels really good and that things are actually working.”