WTF is the fediverse?

This article is a WTF explainer, in which we break down media and marketing’s most confusing terms. More from the series →

Originally published on September 22, 2023, this article has been updated to include an explainer video.

Imagine posting a thought or piece of content on Threads and having followers from another platform, like Mastodon, like and comment on that post. It’s a possibility that’ll soon come to fruition if Meta keeps its promise to allow the nearly 10 million people who still use Threads to follow and interact with users on other platforms like Mastodon. 

This is all thanks to the fediverse, or the federated universe, which is best described as a group of social media networks that are independent but able to communicate with one another. The fediverse’s origins reportedly date back to the early 2000s. But in with an increasingly fragmented social media landscape, Twitter’s decline, data privacy concerns and a colossal creator economy, the promise of cross-platform communication in the fediverse has sparked curiosity for some in the industry, especially with Meta’s plan to make Threads part of it.

WTF is the fediverse?

As stated, the fediverse an ad-free, community-owned, decentralized social networking protocol, in which independently hosted social platforms can interact with one another. It’s made up of protocols, servers and users. In today’s social media landscape, most platforms are run by a single company or entity, where user data and communication are confined to said platform. In other words, what happens on Facebook, stays on Facebook. The fediverse upends that, allowing users from different platforms and services to interact with one another all without creating individual accounts for each platform or service. 

“The way that you can connect in the future of social, is that you won’t have to rely on Instagram or Meta or TikTok or Snapchat to view your content,” said Shatesha Scales-Flanigan, supervisor for paid social at Rain the Growth Agency, referring to centralized platforms like Facebook or Instagram. “We’re trying to get to that world where you can take your stuff and decide which server you want to be on and have one universal login type of thing.”

Think of it like email, where a Gmail user can seamlessly communicate with a Yahoo! Mail user or how an Outlook email makes its way into an AOL Email inbox. In the fediverse, theoretically, an Instagram Reels user could see and interact with a TikTok post, and vice versa. 

Why should marketers care about it?

While the fediverse has excited some agency executives, namely technologists and social media specialists, it hasn’t garnered the same attention as innovations like generative AI, the metaverse or Web3. There are no fediverse strategies or agency pitches around it yet. As it stands, the fediverse is smaller, more community-based and not yet ad-friendly. With its protocols, servers and decentralized nature, it can also be hard to wrap one’s head around. 

Still, the draw is that brands wouldn’t be beholden to today’s giant social media platforms. “In theory a brand could continually build a suite of useful community functionality for that audience which would have built-in connectivity to other platforms (again, just like how email interoperates with almost everything),” said Nilesh Ashra, technologist, strategist and founder and CEO of the OK Tomorrow live show.

Case in point: The fall of X (formerly Twitter). Brands that built a community on that platform risked losing it as brand safety issues increased, and brands and advertisers threatened to leave the platform. What’s more the town square essence of the former Twitter — where users gathered for the Super Bowl, award shows and cultural events, and brands followed said users — has faded as X.

“Twitter was a resource that is not operating in the same way and that is hurting us,” said Rachael Berkey, vp of social strategy at Clarity, a marketing and communications agency. “There is potential that as more people get into the fediverse it could potentially take that back and become a way to reach individuals again, and to organize around things like hashtags, live events or anything of that nature.”

How is the fediverse different from the metaverse or Web3?

Both are digital ecosystems. But unlike the fediverse, the metaverse is built in virtual reality, augmented reality and immersive experiences. (Tune into Digiday’s newest podcast Is This The Metaverse? here for great insights into that world.) Meanwhile Web3 was supposed to be the new iteration of the World Wide Web, incorporating decentralization, blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. 

As it turns out, those technologies may have been overhyped, leaving brands and advertisers feeling badly duped by unfulfilled cryptocurrency and NFT promises, disillusioned with yet another decentralized version of the internet. 

“There’s also a sense that brands have been burned by a trend in previous years about a version of a decentralized internet, Web3, which turned out to be a lot of hot air,” said Martin Pagh Ludvigsen, director of creative technology and AI at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, who noted the potential red flag that brands might see with the fediverse is that it too is a decentralized internet.

Who’s in the fediverse?

Back in July, Meta announced plans to launch Threads in the fediverse, allowing users to communicate with people on other fediverse platforms beyond Threads. Albeit, it’s unclear when the Meta-owned platform will actually join. A notification on Threads tells users they’ll “soon be able to follow and interact with people on other fediverse platforms.” So far, Twitter-like Mastodon, video platform PeerTube, image sharing platform Pixelfed and Lemmy, which is most likened to Reddit, all have a presence in the fediverse. 

Interestingly, Meta’s launch of Threads in the fediverse could be “a counter-play to privacy woes Meta’s experienced in recent years”, said Ed East, co-founder and group CEO of Billion Dollar Boy, influencer marketing agency, in an email response. 

Why does it matter that Threads is potentially joining the fediverse?

The announcement has drawn mixed reactions. On one hand, Meta’s infrastructure and scaled user base could be a huge get for the fediverse and surge its popularity. On the other hand, fediverse users worry that the internet’s largest social media platform will overshadow its smaller, more niche communities. 

“Sceptics may say it’s yet another PR play from Meta to reposition their brand as ‘for the people’, but personally, I think it could be smart as the onset of fediverse is the early wave of how Web3 technologies will impact creators and social media,” East said. Meaning, Meta could be onto something as a first mover in the fediverse.

There’s also the prospect of advertising. The fediverse as it stands is ad-free. Meta, however, is ad-supported, with advertising being its biggest source of revenue. “Even though it hasn’t been revealed yet, I’m sure that somewhere in the rollout plan for Threads, there are also considerations about how to start serving ads on that platform,” said Goodby, Silverstein & Partners’ Pagh Ludvigsen. 

Power to the people and, most likely, the bottom line.

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