How Musk may reinvent the internet without even trying

How Musk may reinvent the internet without even trying

Billionaire entrepreneur and innovator Elon Musk may have just opened a new chapter in the history of the Internet — albeit unintentionally. His new Twitter policies and the digital refugees he has created, most fleeing to the previously obscure Twitter-like platform Mastodon, could give birth to a very new kind of social media experience.

In buying Twitter, Musk, a self-described free-speech absolutist, restored accounts belonging to former President Donald Trump, the right-wing satire site Babylon Bee and the sometimes crude left-wing comedian Kathy Griffin. This was coupled with the removal of verification requirements (which have since been updated) while adding a monthly fee, as well as mass layoffs at the company.

More recently, Twitter suspended several journalists who reported on information about Musk’s jet.

Unhappy with the changes and controversy, some users flocked to other services, such as the much smaller European Twitter alternative Mastodon, the brainchild of free speech advocate and German software engineer Eugen Rochko. But can Mastodon compete with Twitter’s reach? Although Mastodon’s 1 million users pale in comparison to Twitter’s 238 million users, Mastodon’s secret weapon is that it is more than just a website. It is a federation of websites that can maintain their autonomy while exchanging information with each other. Mastodon uses an open and free social media protocol, ActivityPub, which allows any social medium to connect to any other, as long as they are open and transparent with each other. Several platforms, such as the YouTube-like PeerTube, Instagram alternative Pixelfed, social network Friendica already do this. The move from Twitter to Mastodon and ActivityPub could be an epoch-making digital revolution, comparable to the invention of the web itself. ActivityPub can restore the web and its most sophisticated layer, social media, to the open and universally connectable vision of the internet itself. Our most popular social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter and TikTok – remain walled gardens, only allowing users to exchange information within apps under the same ownership or create apps within each platform. This drawback does not apply to ActivityPub-enabled sites. Far from walled gardens, these are fields linked by open roads.

What is ActivityPub and how does it work? At the simplest level, it is a method (protocol) for social media servers to talk to each other, even if they are owned by different entities and dedicated to different purposes. Imagine CBS News, BBC, National Review, and Fox News creating their own social media servers using the Mastodon user interface and ActivityPub as a server-to-server protocol. All the owners of these sites have to do to connect to each other is to list each other’s server addresses on a list of “federated sites”.

Instantly, the users of the sites talking to each other will be able to follow other users’ reposts or comments across server boundaries. This has several advantages. First and foremost, social media owners have a direct and immediate relationship with their users. The owners don’t have to be corporate by the way. Independent media organizations, nonprofits, or user cooperatives can create their own media servers. They can develop their content policies, privacy protection methods, and financial support methods, from advertising (which they control) to subscription- or donation-based support. Social media owners can also decide when and how to open access to other federation members. This may include probationary periods or suspension of communication.

Finally, any company or nonprofit can use a social media interface of their own, not Mastodon, and still talk to other sites using ActivityPub. The interface may include new tools, such as a Trust button to replace the Like or Favorite buttons. My colleagues and I created the TrustFirst social media server powered by ActivityPub and Mastodon. Machine learning then analyzes the content you’re going to reshare or like and advise you if the content is trustworthy. A new button invites you to trust or not and the trust value is used to more or less distribute the content.

More intriguingly, Musk may also implement ActivityPub on Twitter, as Tumblr did. He will ensure the site’s long-term reach, while Twitter users will have their cake (be on Twitter) and eat it too (not bound by its rules).

The genius of the Internet is that it allows and should allow independently owned and operated websites to talk to each other. This is reflected in the name of the Internet, which is a network of networks (inter-net), not one integrated network. The closed social media detour in the history of communication might just come to a very interesting twist. Watch out for tight turns!

Sorin Matei, Ph.D., is the College of Liberal Arts associate dean of research and graduate education and a professor of communication at Purdue University, where he studies the relationship between information technology, group behavior, and social structures in a variety of contexts. He is a senior research fellow at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.

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