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What ActivityPub means for musicians

The gist for people not extremely online: ActivityPub is the latest in a series of protocols aimed at letting different technologies speak with each other. It’s like HTTPS, which brought this post from my web server to the program you’re reading this in. Below that is TCP/IP, and different protocols at the ISP level like DNS and BGP.

Yeah, it’s a lot of acronyms. It’s enough to know that ActivityPub is a protocol that typically runs on HTTP, and it’s gaining steam where previous protocols in the same category like XMPP and OStatus got little traction outside tech circles.

For musicians, this means you will soon have options beyond Facebook and Twitter. Independent developers are hard at work on tools that handle events like Facebook, music like Soundcloud, short posts like Twitter, and things you probably never thought of. They all speak the same protocol.

Right now, it looks like what you do now but…distributed. It’s nice because there are enough people on the ActivityPub network to be seen, but not so many that you fall below the noise floor if you aren’t relentless.

There’s a typical pattern in technology.

  • Someone makes a technology that does the thing people already do, but different.
  • Early adopters rush in because hey, new thing!
  • Everyone else struggles to understand it. They usually compare it to earlier, failed efforts to replace the current thing. They’re right 99% of the time.
  • The tools people use for the old thing turn user-hostile and try to keep people from leaving as the new thing takes over. Twitter got an early start by killing off its developer ecosystem. They know how this goes.
  • Thousands of posts appear on the new thing in the theme of “I’m glad I made an account and kept a presence here early!”

Most people who already find adequate success on Twitter and Facebook will struggle to justify the time and effort, but it’s coming. ActivityPub is happening.

Right now there are a few main platforms that run on it. For example: Mastodon, Pleroma, PixelFed, Nextcloud. It’s tempting to assert that these will be the thing but, historically speaking, they probably won’t be. There are too many issues and splits for them to last.

The platforms that carve out new frontiers like this always end up a footnote. Ask the average internet user about Usenet, or AOL, or any of the vanguard of Web 2.0.

That sounds like I’m saying “don’t bother.” What I’m actually saying is “don’t repeat the last mistake.” Yes, go make a Mastodon account. Make one on Pixelfed. Find a Funkwhale or PeerTube instance. Write your novel on write.as. Organize an event on Get Together. You can benefit from it now, but make sure you have a way to tell people where you are once better tools sprout up in the ruins of the ActivityPub vanguard.

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ActivityPub Could Be The Future

I’ll admit, I’ve spent the last several years disillusioned with technology. All the quirky little tools people made gave way to ad-fueled companies that refused to play well with others.

This is the first time I’ve been excited for a new technology in memory.

ActivityPub is to HTTP what HTTP was to TCP/IP. TCP/IP bridged disparate systems and allowed them to communicate reliably. HTTP allowed the various services built on TCP/IP to communicate with each other reliably.

ActivityPub goes one step further and provides a way for users on those services to communicate in a way that has the appearance of directness. I can follow, for example, Blender’s videos on PeerTube from my Mastodon account. Or I can use a blog platform that speaks ActivityPub and let people follow it from other services. It’s all the best features of Twitter with the flexibility of RSS. And unlike Twitter, your Mastodon profile will probably never lose its RSS feed in a company’s pursuit of profit. The main project already funds itself through Patreon, as do most of the larger instances.

It’s still early. We could be looking at a situation like Usenet and Gopher where neither ended up being The Thing because AOL soaked up the nascent public internet, then Facebook soaked up the nascent commercial web.

Right now the popularity of Mastodon carries ActivityPub while projects like Plume (blogging), Pixelfed (image sharing), and others work toward their potential.

I have noticed a tendency for people supporting older, similar protocols to wonder why ActivityPub got so popular while their own stagnated. We could speculate. If people knew Ostatus at all, they understood it as a protocol for making Twitter clones. XMPP spoke XML in an age of JSON, and it was perceived as an instant messenger protocol.

Both focused on liberating people from commercial silos. Mastodon had some press to that effect regarding Twitter, but people on there have come to care less as its native and diverse community grows to a self-sufficient level.

Twitter and Facebook are struggling to cope with their place in a massive cultural shift and shaky transfer of generational power. As I write this, Facebook has just lost 25% of its share price on the announcement that it expects weak growth.

I think the growing ActivityPub federation has a good chance. No one interacts with my tweets anymore. Meanwhile, I get response on Mastodon that reminds me of the early days of Twitter, before they betrayed their developer community and hired a legion of people to cut ad deals.