Meta’s Interoperable ReversalLuke Hogg, Lars Erik Schönander / Jul 19, 2023
Luke Hogg is director of outreach and Lars Erik Schönander is a policy technologist at the Foundation for American Innovation.
This month, Meta—the parent company behind Facebook and Instagram—introduced Threads, a micro-blogging platform intended to directly take on Twitter. Garnering over 30 million signups in 16 hours, Threads has had the fastest growth in social media history. But from crypto-based systems such as Farcaster to Jack Dorsey-backed, open protocol-based Bluesky, plenty of people and communities are actively trying to knock out Elon Musk’s Twitter.
Setting aside the juvenile spats between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, the way in which Meta's Threads, Bluesky, Mastodon, and other projects have chosen to architect their Twitter competitors could be a step towards a more open and interoperable internet. Following in the footsteps of nearly every other recent Twitter clone, Meta has promised to make Threads interoperable with other social media platforms via the ActivityPub protocol.
With Meta choosing to create a more open application in Threads, the question must be asked: why is a company that has historically opposed interoperability suddenly embracing open source protocols? The most likely answer is that Meta is responding to a combination of forces, both regulatory and market-based, that are likely to drive further openness in the future.
Meta’s History of Restriction
Historically, Meta—along with most other social media platforms including Twitter—has been averse to high-level interoperability. While the major platforms have allowed lower levels of portability and interoperability – such as allowing users to download their data on followers, likes, and posts – they have been reluctant to incorporate protocols and other systems that would allow users to interact easily across applications. This was not always the case.
When it began, Facebook succeeded in part thanks to aggressive data scraping and interoperability with its competitors. By allowing its users to link their accounts to MySpace—which was much larger at the time—Facebook was able to poach users. Because users could send messages from Facebook to MySpace, and receive notifications from MySpace on Facebook, users chose to use Facebook as their MySpace client. Then, after it achieved scale, Facebook aggressively closed the door on interoperability.
Nothing demonstrates this better than the case of Facebook v. Power.com. In 2008, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the startup Power.com, a website that allowed users to manage all of their social media accounts from a single dashboard. To do this, Power.com interoperated with several social media sites, including Facebook. Once Facebook learned of this, it took technical steps attempting to block Power from interoperating, and later filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Power was hacking Facebook.
After nine years of litigation, Facebook finally won, receiving a mere $80,000 in compensatory damages. But money was never the point. Facebook’s lawsuit drained Power dry, forcing the company to shut down. Facebook’s case against Power wasn’t about preventing material harm to Facebook, but rather about using the law and courts to kill a potential competitor that was doing exactly what had allowed Facebook to succeed in the first place.
Recently, a new generation of social media platforms and protocols has emerged that harken back to a more open and decentralized digital ecosystem. Mastodon, BlueSky, Warpcast, and other applications use protocols (ActivityPub, AT Protocol, and Farcaster respectively) to allow users to interact with each other across different applications or clients. As the Bluesky documentation puts it, the goal of these systems is to “to allow modern social media and public conversation online to work more like the early days of the web.” In other words, these projects are an attempt to subvert the control closed social media platforms have over users' interactions, content, and data.
With the intent of being “compatible with the open, interoperable social networks,” Threads marks Meta’s first major move towards this model of openness and interoperability in its social media products. It’s only a first step: for now, Threads is only interoperable with Instagram, and few could say this sort of internal integration constitutes true interoperability. But there is a roadmap for Threads to become more federated.
Threads promises to eventually support ActivityPub, an open, decentralized protocol developed by Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium that allows users to post content in a federated manner. For a company that has vehemently opposed openness, the sudden reversal to allow interoperability is a significant departure from business as usual, even if it is only for a single product.
The Significance of Meta’s Interoperability Reversal
The potential societal benefits of openness are immense. By embracing interoperability, Meta can foster a more open and inclusive digital ecosystem that promotes user choice, data portability, and more competition. Interoperability benefits users by granting them greater control over their data and seamless communication across platforms, and can also encourage innovation and drive the industry towards a more interconnected future.
When it comes to Meta's bottom line, however, the motivations for interoperability are much less clear. As a profit-maximizing company, it is easy to understand Meta’s hostility towards interoperability.
For one, maintaining a closed ecosystem makes revenue generation simpler. If content from one site integrates seamlessly with other systems, customers may opt for third-party solutions or open-source alternatives instead of purchasing subscriptions or being willing to consume ads. Additionally, supporting interoperability with a wide range of systems can be technically challenging and resource intensive. It requires ongoing efforts to ensure compatibility, resolve conflicts, and provide customer support. Many companies, including Meta, claim that a closed ecosystem is much easier to build and maintain, resulting in a better customer experience.
With the direct commercial benefits of openness unclear, the question remains. One explanation is that Meta is attempting to anticipate and mollify European regulators. Since 2018, Meta—along with Apple, Google, and several other companies—has backed a nonprofit known as the Data Transfer Initiative, which aims to build and implement data transfer tools and other forms of interoperability-enhancing technologies. It is no secret that one of the reasons these companies are incentivized to open up is that Europe’s Digital Markets Act will include data portability requirements. In the United States, bills like theAugmenting Compatibility and Competition by Enabling Service Switching (ACCESS) Acthave similar provisions, increasing the likelihood that Meta is attempting to garner favor with interoperability-minded policymakers.
Another explanation is that Meta is responding to competitive pressure. While not nearly as large or fast-growing, the plethora of Twitter clones all have one thing in common: federation. Jack Dorsey’s decision to leave Twitter to develop Bluesky and later support Nostr was an early indicator that Big Tech may be experiencing a shift towards openness. The fact that many of Elon Musk’s detractors chose to migrate to Mastodon may have been another indicator that consumers are choosing openness.
As countless examples have shown, making a carbon copy of an app is almost never sufficient to draw users away from the original. In the case of Threads, Meta may have understood that having a text-based app that worked with Instagram was insufficient to pull users from Twitter. In order to compete with Twitter and the other Twitter clones, necessity may have required interoperability.
Whether it be pressure from regulators or competitors or a combination of the two, forces are pushing more companies to open up. Slowly but surely, we have begun to watch some of the strongest walled gardens in the realm of social media begin to weaken. As these forces, both regulatory and competitive, continue to grow, it is likely that Meta and other companies will continue to pursue openness. Policymakers and innovators should continue to watch this space and, wherever possible, continue to exert pressure to force the openness that users deserve.