Fediverse Unlocked

Embracing the Fediverse with ActivityPub.

I was excited when Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com, announced that they had acquired the popular WordPress plugin ActivityPub.

Although I had enabled the ActivityPub plugin in 2019, I hadn’t committed to using it and soon disabled it. Matthias Pfefferle’s later announcement that Automattic had enabled ActovityPub across all of WordPress.com filled me with confidence to re-enable the plug-in and commit to the fediverse.

The ActivityPub plugin for WordPress is a tool that extends the functionality of a WordPress website to make it compatible with the ActivityPub protocol. ActivityPub is a decentralised social networking protocol that allows different social media platforms to communicate and share content in a standardised way.

My WordPress site can interact with other ActivityPub-compatible platforms such as Mastodon. This means I can follow and be followed by users on other ActivityPub-compatible social networks like Mastodon, Pleroma, or Pixelfed. I can share my posts, articles, and updates from my WordPress site directly to subscribers on other platforms that support ActivityPub.

ActivityPub enables interactions such as liking (favouriting), sharing (boosting), and commenting (replies) on my WordPress posts from other ActivityPub users. The plugin allows me to control the visibility of my posts, making it possible to share them publicly or restrict it to specific audiences.

Once a person follows the @khurtwilliams@islandinthenet.com profile, any blog post I publish publicly will land in their Home feed on Mastodon. I receive notifications for interactions with my blog, such as when someone likes, shares, or comments on my posts from those external platforms.

The ActivityPub plugin enhances my WordPress website's connectivity, enabling it to become a part of the larger decentralised social web. It fosters a more open and interconnected online social experience, where users on various platforms can engage with my website seamlessly.

WordPress Reader

Can I use WordPress Reader as a social RSS reader?

In a recent blog post, Jason Becker reflected on the challenges of measuring engagement and building communities on personal blogs when you don’t have analytics. Jason linked to a blog post by Monique Judge calling for a return to personal blogging.

This paragraph by Monique resonated with me.

People built entire communities around their favorite blogs, and it was a good thing. You could find your people, build your tribe, and discuss the things your collective found important.

That’s what I want when I use silos such as X, Threads, Facebook or micro.blog. But when compared to IndieWeb principles, these platforms often fail to satisfy my needs for a sense of community and communication. One key issue is that these platforms demand that I establish a distinct identity within their closed ecosystems, and they impose rigid rules and guidelines enforced by centralised authorities, usually dictated by one person.

@camacho I try my best to adhere to the IndieWeb principles of POSSE. I host my blog on WordPress because, unlike micro.blog (µB), I control the platform. µB is just another silo platform, after all.

This is limiting and frustrating, as it restricts my freedom to interact and express myself authentically. To avoid these constraints, I have tried alternative solutions, like decentralised social networks or open-source platforms, where users have more control over their online presence and interactions. These platforms aim to promote user autonomy and reduce the influence of central authorities. But I still find them lacking.

This got me thinking about social RSS readers and WordPress Reader.

A social reader can refer to two concepts related to reading and social interactions. A social reader is a modern interactive reader that allows you to directly respond to posts (with a like, comment, etc.) right there in line with posts as you read them (as people do in social media), in contrast to legacy feed readers which are one-way read-only experiences that provide no mechanisms to interact with or respond to posts.

When using a social reader app, individuals can discover articles others share in their network, follow specific topics or publishers, and see what their friends are reading or recommending. The app might curate personalised content based on the user’s interests, preferences, and social connections. This combination of reading and social engagement enhances the user experience by fostering discussions, facilitating content sharing, and expanding one’s knowledge through diverse perspectives.

Social reader apps can increase engagement with content and a sense of community among users who share similar interests. A social reader represents a convergence of content aggregation and social networking.

Google Reader was an example of a popular social reader. It offered features that allowed users to share articles with friends and engage in discussions around the shared content. A social reader represents a convergence of content aggregation and social networking.

My WordPress posts were syndicated to Facebook (via Automattic’s JetPack) before they shuttered their API access. Automattic and µB stopped supporting Twitter after Elon Musk raised prices. I still syndicate to µB via the RSS feed, but the presentation is weak without Open Graph.

WordPress has a built community via JetPack and WordPress Reader. WordPress Reader has been around since 2013 and is the WordPress equivalent of µB’s chat feature. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what inspired Manton. Most of my comments and readership come via WordPress Reader.

Screenshot of JetPack Reader
JetPack Reader’s Discovery Tab

I was syndicating to Mastodon, but there is some problem with duplicates being created on my m.b. time when I do that, so I disabled it.

I know to have the sort of online life I want, I need to participate in multiple small, or at least not billionaire-run, communities. No small single service, community, etc... can meet even my meagre needs.

Screenshot of JetPack Reader
JetPack Reader Likes

While I don't have a large following on Twitter (about 1,500) or Instagram (around 500), I've been fortunate not to encounter the common issues that some people associate with these platforms.

One of the reasons for my positive experience on large social platforms is that I already have genuine in-real-life connections with friends and family on those platforms.

Screenshot of JetPack Reader
JetPack Reader’s conversation timeline

Forming deep connections with strangers solely through casual and trivial conversations on social media is challenging. While I value my interactions online, I think true belonging and understanding can only be found through genuine, in-person encounters. It's easier for me to fully know someone beyond their avatar and screen name with the opportunity to meet face-to-face. I’ve never expected to make strong "friends" online.

Screenshot of JetPack Reader

Maybe part of my frustration with m.b. is that I know what’s possible. I hope that ActivityPub and Wedmentions (or a combination of the two) become part of the popular blogging and social media platforms to foster inter-blog inter-platform messaging that links everything together.

On this Day in History: On 19 November 2006, Nintendo released the Nintendo Wii in the United States. It was Nintendo’s fifth major home game console, following the GameCube.

What is a silo?

Disagreeing with Jatan Mehta, I argue that WordPress.com's domain ownership and content portability offer effective audience engagement and control.

I read Jatan Mehta's argument about WordPress.com, and while I respect his perspective, I must respectfully disagree with some of his statements. Let me offer a rebuttal to address the concerns in his article Medium, WordPress.com and social platforms are siloes you should try avoiding.

Jatan Mehta asserts that blogging on platforms like WordPress.com can lead to being "semi-locked-in" regarding owning the connection to your audience. He’s conveniently found a way to apply the "semi-locked-in" label to WordPress.com by focusing on how mailing lists are managed. He argues that social media platforms often make it difficult to move your followers to a new platform and that WordPress.com and Medium have adopted similar tactics, hindering portability. He conveniently ignores that as long as you own your domain, your "followers" can always find you.

Before I start, one major issue with Jatan's article is the comparison of WordPress.com, a blogging platform and content management system, with microblogging and social messaging platforms like micro.blog. It's crucial to recognise that WordPress.com doesn't include any social messaging features – it never has. He might as well be comparing pawpaw and papaya. I don’t think anyone in the IndieWeb community would apply the word "silo" to self-hosted WordPress websites.

While I understand the concern about maintaining a connection with your audience, Jatan's argument overlooks some important aspects of using WordPress.com and similar blogging platforms. Let's delve into these points:

  1. Standardisation and Portability: Jatan acknowledges that blogs are largely standardised, allowing easy movement from one platform to another. This is even easier if your website has a domain name. This is a crucial advantage of blogging platforms like WordPress.com. Unlike social media platforms, where your content's fate is tied to the platform's existence, a blog can be exported in a format other platforms can understand. Thus, even if WordPress.com were to suspend your account (an unlikely scenario for most users who adhere to platform guidelines), you still have the option to take your content and migrate it elsewhere without losing your valuable thoughts and contributions.
  2. Audience Ownership: Jatan raises concerns about owning the connection with your readers and followers on WordPress.com. The idea that you "own your followers" bothers me. While it's true that some blogging platforms, such as Medium, force you to retain followers within their ecosystem, it's essential to consider that your primary means of communication with your audience on WordPress.com is through your content – your blog posts. Your readers subscribe to your blog and follow you (via RSS) to receive updates directly from you. While there might be other mechanisms like "Follow" buttons or email subscription lists, the heart of your connection with your audience remains rooted in the content you produce, not just the platform-specific features. Regarding Jatan's notion of exporting his micro.blog followers and forcing them to follow him on another platform is far-fetched. How exactly does he plan to make that work? Again, The idea that you "own your followers" bothers me.
  3. Diverse Engagement Options: WordPress.com provides multiple avenues for engaging with your audience. While some may prefer direct email subscriptions or RSS feeds, others might find value in following your blog through the platform's built-in "Follow" mechanism. Different people have different preferences, and offering a variety of options can be advantageous in reaching a broader audience. Automattic has acquired the ActivityPub plug-in! With this development, I'm confident that WordPress.com will soon be able to facilitate rich conversations with Mastodon instances. This integration holds great promise for enhancing the platform's capabilities and fostering more dynamic interactions across the web. Remember that engagement methods should complement one another rather than create a rigid either/or choice.
  4. Medium's Algorithmic Challenge: Jatan highlights his struggles with Medium's algorithm, which impacts the visibility of his posts to his followers. While algorithmic challenges can affect content reach on some platforms, this is not an inherent limitation of all blogging platforms, including micro.blog and WordPress.com. The reach on micro.blog is noticeably lower compared to other platforms. The community size is relatively small, and Manton's intentional design choices constrain the behaviours that expand reach. WordPress.com, for instance, provides various ways to optimise your content's discoverability, such as SEO tools, tags, and categories, but the platform lacks any algorithmic system. Engaging with your audience through WordPress.com is a more direct and transparent process compared to social media algorithms, where your content's reach is often at the mercy of platform-specific algorithms.
  5. RSS and Email: Jatan mentions RSS and email subscribers as the solution to platform lock-in. He’s on the right path to how to avoid platform lock-in, whether micro.blog or otherwise. He conveniently ignores that WordPress.com supports both. WordPress.com supports RSS follows via JetPack’s Reader. They call this feature "follow". As a WordPress.com user, I can follow any blog vis RSS feed, whether hosted on WordPress.com or micro.blog. Anyone can sign-up to get my newsletter. They don’t need a WordPress.com account to do so. When I want to leave WordPress.com, I can export all the email addresses to a CSV file and import them into my new platform. I can export all my JetPack Reader follows as an OPML file and follows those blog in another RSS aggregator.
  6. Comments: There's an important distinction to be made when leaving comments on micro.blog posts versus WordPress.com websites. On micro.blog, leaving a comment to a blog post requires having a micro.blog account, whereas on WordPress.com, no account is needed to leave a comment. WordPress.com relies on the Akismet service, which has proven incredibly effective in keeping spam at bay. After over 20 years of using WordPress, I can confidently say that Akismet has not failed me. It's a reliable tool that ensures the comments section remains a clean and engaging space for readers and bloggers alike.

Manton wrote about silos in his book:

Not all centralized services are silos. The key trait of silos is isolation. Silos wall-off and limit our control over content, usually by storing all content at the silo’s own domain name rather than allowing personal domain names.

Jatan's's preference for email and RSS-based direct engagement with his audience is valid. I’ve always encouraged my readers to use RSS. Additionally, the portability and standardisation of WordPress.com blogs ensure that my content remains under my control. While platforms may offer additional engagement options, the primary connection with your audience lies in the value of your content. Embracing diverse methods of engaging with your audience can amplify your reach and impact, making blogging platforms like WordPress.com valuable tools for building an online presence and sharing your thoughts with the world.

As Manton said in his book under the section, Owning your content.

I think in the tech world — and especially as programmers — we tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. We know too much about content ownership, most of it irrelevant for mainstream users.

If you want to control your content on the web, post it at your own personal domain name. That’s it. Everything else you want to do is icing on the cake.

Owning your content isn’t about portable software. It’s about portable URLs and data. It’s about domain names.

When you write and post photos at your own domain name, your content can outlive any one blogging platform. In all the years of blogging at manton.org, I’ve switched blogging platforms and hosting providers a few times. The posts and URLs can all be preserved through those changes because it’s my own domain name.

If you can’t use your own domain name, you can’t own it. Your content will be forever stuck at those silo URLs, beholden to the whims of the algorithmic timeline and shifting priorities of the executive team.

I’ve had my domain for over 20 years, and this blog has lived on UserLand Manila, Blogger, WordPress.com, and MoveableType before I settled on self-hosted WordPress. I'll never be locked in as long as I can export my content and my audience can access RSS.

NOTE: Both @moonmehta and I are part of the micro.blog community. I supported the original Kickstarter! However, it's worth mentioning that my primary website is self-hosted WordPress. For those interested in a self-hostable, single-user, IndieWeb-friendly open-source software microblogging platform that you 100% control, check out microblog.pub.