Ivy Fan-Chiang - Why the Fediverse Wants to Block Instagram Threads
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  • Why the Fediverse Wants to Block Instagram Threads

    Posted 2023/12/29

    NOTE: This post aims to lay out recent events on the Fediverse in hopefully an unbiased opinion. I currently do not have any strong opinions about the IG Threads federation debate I am witnessing (which might change in the future) but think the events and arguments should be documented in a way that users of the Fediverse, Instagram Threads, or the internet in general can understand as it highlights important issues with open standards, ecosystems, big tech, and social media.

    In July 2023, following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter (now known as X) and his controversial changes to the platform, Meta released Instagram Threads, an alternative microblogging platform. Being already tightly integrated with the Instagram and Meta ecosystem, the platform quickly gained over 100 million sign-ups within the first 5 days of its launch. However, for users of the Fediverse, the announcement that raised eyebrows and triggered debate was Meta’s announcement that Threads’ goal was to support the ActivityPub protocol, allowing the platform to federate with other platforms like Mastodon, providing data portability, follower portability, and cross-platform interaction.

    But what is the Fediverse, ActivityPub, Federation, Mastodon, etc.?

    The Fediverse (blend word of “Federation” and “Universe”, a.k.a. the fedi) is a collection of mostly free and open source social media servers that have the ability to communicate and interact with each over via the ActivityPub protocol. Commonly used software to host servers within the Fediverse include Mastodon (microblogging, most used platform), Lemmy (forums), Pixelfed (image sharing), PeerTube (video sharing), Plemora (microblogging), Misskey (microblogging), and their derivatives.


    ActivityPub is an open, standardized networking protocol for decentralized social media developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The protocol relies on federation for cross-platform and cross-server interaction, which is when services agree to use the same standards for communication and use those standards to relay messages from users on one server to users on another. Federation is not a new concept in networked communication, as one of the largest federated networks that everyone uses in our day-to-day lives is email (which uses the IMAP, POP3, and SMTP standard protocols to relay emails between servers and clients). In the case of the Fediverse, this concept of federation is used to relay information like posts, replies, follow requests, etc. between servers to facilitate cross-platform communication. For example, if Alice was on a Mastodon server and followed Bob who posts to a PeerTube server, her Mastodon server would use the ActivityPub protocol to send a follow request to Bob’s PeerTube server and when he posts a video, the PeerTube server would send use the protocol to send the post to Alice’s Mastodon server to add it to her feed.

    Another similarity to email is that user identifiers on ActivityPub platforms follow a username at server convention like email addresses. For example, my Mastodon account at the time of writing is @hexadecimal_dinosaur@masto.ai which indicates that I have the username @hexadecimal_dinosaur and am signed up on the masto.ai Mastodon instance. When Instagram Threads finally achieves full compatibility with ActivityPub, their users will show up as @user@threads.net to users outside of Threads (see Adam Mosseri’s account viewed from my home instance masto.ai for example).

    Why is this federation as a social media model good for users?

    1. Flexibility to select platforms: users can select the platform, server, and client that works best for their own needs, content, and preferences instead of making decisions based off of where the people they want to interact with are while still retaining the ability to interact with those individuals
    2. Follower portability: if you disagree with policy changes made by your server or just want to switch platforms, you can move your account to a different server/platform and your existing followers can continue to follow you there (takes a bit of time to move, but some platforms like Mastodon take it a step further and have follower moving features)
    3. Data portability: user data like followers, posts, media, etc. can be easily exported and imported on different platforms in a standardized ActivityPub format
    4. Creates Open APIs: ActivityPub interoperability requires the creation of openly available APIs to fetch and post content which is very beneficial to research, accessibility, developer experience, etc.2

    Benefits specific to smaller open instances

    1. Moderation scales better: it is easier for a team of a few server administrators to moderate a couple hundred users on their own server than it is for a centralized underfunded team to moderate millions of users (like Twitter)
    2. Community tailored policies: each community can set their own moderation and membership policies that suits them the best and select software customized to their content. This has created many different severs across the Fediverse tailored to specific communities like information security, queer tech enthusiasts, Indigenous Americans, Wikimedia users, mathematicians, etc.
    3. Servers don’t even have to be social media platforms: ActivityPub at its core is just a protocol for server-to-server content delivery, this can be implemented in so many more platforms than traditional social media, like letting people follow your blog, events, or federating Git repositories across hosts

    If there are so many benefits to ActivityPub integration and interoperability, what is the debate regarding Threads about?

    Most of the debate stems from the issue of moderation on the Fediverse and Threads. Currently, moderation on Fediverse platforms works by having server admins moderate both the content hosted on their servers and incoming interactions from other servers subject to their server moderation rules. This system scales well in the Fediverse model of many small independent servers, as it creates a more even moderator to user ratio. Also, moderators only have to block very few misbehaving users on other servers because users are already moderated by the policies of their home server. Occasionally, servers may have moderation policies that are not compatible, resulting in a full server block by moderators, preventing all content by any user of a server from reaching another server. In its most extreme form, these server blocks are escalated to Fediblocks (federation blocks), which occurs when many servers agree to collectively block a server, cutting off servers from the federated network. Fediblock occurrences are rare, and are usually only done when a server’s community as a whole is spamming, promoting misinformation, hate speech, or inciting violence.

    Many individuals on the anti-Meta side of the debate believe that Meta and other large centralized social media companies have demonstrated that they are unable to moderate their users effectively, resulting in massive amounts of misinformation, hate speech, harassment, and incitements of violence on Twitter, Facebook, etc. They also believe that Threads’ userbase has grown too large for effective moderation3, with insufficient moderators on Meta’s side and too many gaps in their policy. These individuals argue that to protect the users that are already present on the Fediverse, the only effective measure is to implement a collective Fediblock against Instagram Threads, preventing them from federating with the rest of the Fediverse. This group of individuals are known as the FediPact, and includes many server admins who have committed to blocking theads.net on their own servers.

    NOTE: threads.net is not the first time a fediblock has been enforced against a corporate entity. truth.social, the alt-right social media platform run by Donald Trump that is actually a Mastodon derivative, is fediblocked by most servers and has a history of open source license violations

    What perceived benefits are there to existing Fediverse platforms for letting Threads federate with them?

    However, many individuals on the other side of the debate who defend Threads’ federation still believe moderation is possible with individual user blocks and a full server block is not necessary. They believe the additional work required by server moderators to maintain a healthy federation with Threads is worth the benefits that come with interoperability with the platform.

    Which means that it’s actually very manageable to guard yourself against anything bad that might come out of Threads, right? If there is an account on Threads, that is performing harassment, or spam, or transphobia, Mastodon allows you to moderate remote accounts, just like you do with local accounts. Like you can just suspend the remote account, and that’s it, that’s the only account from the domain that is suspended and everybody else can still be accessed and interacted with…

    - Eugen Rochko (CEO of the non-profit Mastodon GmbH organization, excerpt from the Dot Social podcast)

    Many view this as an opportunity for all Fediverse platforms, including Mastodon, to grow. Users that were on the fence about joining Threads due to privacy concerns but still wanted to interact with users on Threads like their friends now have another option. Joining Mastodon or any other Fedi platform can give them the privacy respecting ad-free experience they are looking for while still being able to interact with their friends and other users on Threads. Users already on Threads may also appreciate the ad-free experience on open Fedi platforms and switch, retaining their ability to interact with the same users and keeping their followers.

    But with this, we can basically pitch and say, Okay, you can come to Mastodon, and your privacy can be respected, we’re not going to track you, you’re not going to see any ads. And you’re going to be able to access all of the people that you wanted to connect with on Threads as well at the same time. And that makes it such an easier pitch for Mastodon, I believe.

    - Eugen Rochko

    Also, by opening up federation to Meta, the fediverse community signals that ActivityPub is a mature protocol, encouraging more projects and companies like Tumblr and Flipboard to adopt the protocol. This encourages more development in the space and helps build a more open internet, with less closed ecosystems.

    What other arguments are there against for Fediblocking Threads?

    While increased development in ActivityPub and the Fediverse space is beneficial, development from for-profit corporations is a controversial topic. One of the other arguments supporting the Fediblock of Threads is the fear that Meta will try to kill ActivityPub with an Embrace, Extend, Extinguish strategy. This strategy, pioneered by Microsoft, involves a company embracing a competing standard, adding proprietary extensions to cause interoperability problems in their implementation, and eventually disadvantaging competitors by taking advantage of the differences they made. Many users of the Fediverse were users of the old XMPP decentralized instant messenger network, which was a victim of an Embrace, Extend, Extinguish strategy conducted by Google Talk. These users argue that “people who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” and that users of the Fediverse should be suspicious of Meta’s intentions to protect the community and network that we have built, even if that requires Fediblocking Threads.

    Another argument against federating with Threads is the belief that Meta is an extremely unethical corporation, with many individuals uncomfortable with the idea of association with a company that had such a large role in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. This fear stems from the fact that the Fediverse has become a home for so many minority communities, and the idea of sharing this space with an oppressor is frightening to many. Erin Kissane has written an excellent blog series on the subject that I have linked below.

    There is one final argument that resonates with me the most. The Fediverse has turned into a large community of its own with a culture and social norms that you would not find elsewhere. Adding millions of users to the Fediverse all at once who outnumber the size of the current community is likely to erase these norms and the culture from relevance within the Fedi. Norms that have contributed to a better social media experience and cultural artifacts that are in danger of being erased include the creation of #introduction posts when joining the Fedi (or new servers), writing alt text for media on posts to help increase accessibility for the visually impaired community, and the legend of John Mastodon4. The community has also become a super inclusive safe space for so many minorities, the open source community, disabled and neurodivergent individuals, and just people who want to make the internet a better place. Wanting to preserve and protect this community and control the terms of its growth instead of handing over that control to a corporation like Meta is a cause that resonates with many on the Fediverse.


    I joined the Fediverse in November 2022, signing up for my first account on stux‘s volunteer run Mastodon server at masto.ai during the peak of the Great Twitter Migration. I was initially a bit skeptical of the entire social platform and microblogging in general, as I was never a big social media user and never used a microblogging platform before. However, my experience over the past year has been amazing and deeply inspiring (despite the fact I don’t post much and just lurk and boost other people’s posts). I have discovered so many amazing groups, like the queer hacker community, the information security community, and so many academics with amazing research. Being exposed to so much queer representation in information security and academia has been greatly inspiring, and I found my CTF team, who are such an amazing group of friends, through the Fediverse.

    These experiences have led me to understand and sympathize with both sides of the debate. The community I have found on the Fediverse is so valuable to me, and like so many others, I want to protect it from the potential threat that Instagram Threads presents. On the other hand, ActivityPub and the Fediverse network is a super cool model that reimagines how we run social media and other platforms, and I want to see it gain even more adoption and create even more amazing diverse communities.

    I don’t think the Fediverse community will ever come to consensus on blocking or welcoming Instagram Threads into the network. Different servers will have different community beliefs and risk models, and act accordingly. However, I think that the fact we have the ability to have this discussion and make these decisions is actually beautiful, and shows how the ActivityPub model offers so much transparency, allows users to make decisions based on their own risk analysis, and most importantly, protects our freedom of association.

    Appendix: Timeline of Events

    • April 2022: Elon Musk begins his acquisition of Twitter by buying up shares and proceeding to make an unsolicited offer to buy the company
    • October 2022: Elon Musk finalizes his acquisition of Twitter, assuming the position of CEO, dissolving the board of directors, and merging the company with X Holdings
    • November 2022:
      • Many of Musk’s Twitter reforms including the reinstatements of banned accounts, the creation of Twitter Blue, and mass bans on accounts critical of Musk, occurred in this month
      • Musk’s changes triggers the Great Twitter Migration, the movement of over a hundred thousand users from Twitter to Mastodon
      • Meta employees start discussing the possibility of turning Instagram Notes (an upcoming text-based feature for IG) into a standalone app, Adam Mosseri (the head of IG) agrees to start building a seperate app with the plan to release by January 2023
      • Development of the new app by Meta begins under the codename “Project 92”
    • June 2023:
      • Meta employees email many prominent Fediverse server admins and developers to invite them to a meeting to discuss Project 92 and its federation plans, the attendees were required to sign a NDA so no details of what occurred at the meeting are known publicly
      • Some server admins make public refusals to join the meeting for transparency and the events trigger the beginning of the Threads fediblock debate

    • July 2023:
      • Instagram Threads launches with announcements of plans for future federation with the Fediverse using ActivityPub
      • Some server blocks against threads.net begin around this time in preparation for when ActivityPub support is launched and the FediPact is formed
    • December 2023:
      • IG Threads launches in Europe
      • Threads begins testing its ActivityPub implementation by allowing Fediverse users to follow the accounts of some Instagram employees and developers like Adam Mosseri
      • The new Threads federation proof of concept triggers a second round of debate, bringing in more arguments and participants on both sides from across the fediverse
      • Many server admins are pressured by their users into making a decision on if they will federate with threads or join the Fediblock, triggering some server migrations

    Further Reading

    1. By Imke Senst, Mike Kuketz - https://social.tchncs.de/@kuketzblog/110428640620752872, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=132360500 

    2. The benefits of open APIs is a topic that I want to write about in the future, especially following recent events at Twitter and Reddit 

    3. Some also argue that mastodon.social, the flagship instance of Mastodon gGmbH which is set as the default server in the signup screen of many Mastodon apps, has a userbase that has grown far too large to moderate effectively and has an insufficient moderator to user ratio. As such you will occasionally hear calls to Fediblock mastodon.social or see some smaller servers have blocked the instance, but this opinion is held by a very small minority and has not triggered a Fedi-wide debate like threads.net has 

    4. John Mastodon is the imaginary creator of the Mastodon social media platform who has god-like powers. The character was invented and turned into a meme after a journalist wrote an article on Elon Musk banning the @joinmastodon account on Twitter and misread the handle for John Mastodon, a character who created a social media platform named after himself (relevant post