On standards divisions and collaboration (or: Why can't the decentralized social web people just get along?)

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Thu 25 January 2018

A couple of days ago I wrote about ActivityPub becoming a W3C Recommendation. This was one output of the Social Working Group, and the blogpost was about my experiences, and most of my experiences were on my direct work on ActivityPub. But the Social Working Group did more than ActivityPub; it also on the same day published WebSub, a useful piece of technology in its own right which amongst other things also plays a significant historical role in what is even ActivityPub's history (but is not used by ActivityPub itself), and it has also published several documents which are not compatible with ActivityPub at all, and appear to play the same role. This, to outsiders, may appear confusing, but there are reasons which I will go into in this post.

On that note, friend and Social Working Group co-participant Amy Guy just wrote a reasonably and (to my own feelings) highly empathizable frustrated blogpost (go ahead and read it before you finish this blogpost) about the kinds of comments you see with different members of different decentralized social web communities sniping at each other. Yes, reading the comments is always a precarious idea, particularly on tech news sites. But what's especially frustrating is seeing comments that we either:

These comments seem to be being made by people who were not part of the standards process, so as someone who spent three years of their life on it, let me give the perspective of someone who was actually there.

So yes, first of all, it's true that in the end we pushed out two "stacks" that were mostly incompatible. These would more or less be the "restful + linked data" stack, which is ActivityPub and Linked Data Notifications using ActivityStreams as its core (but extensible) vocabulary (which are directly interoperable, and use the same "inbox" property for delivery), and the "Indieweb stack", which is Micropub and Webmention. (And there's also WebSub, which is not really either specifically part of one or the other of those "stacks" but which can be used with either, and is of such historical significance to federation that we wanted it to be standardized.) Amy Guy did a good job of mapping the landscape in her Social Web Protocols document.

Gosh, two stacks! It does kind of look confusing, if you weren't in the group, to see how this could have happened. Going through meeting logs is boring (though the meeting logs are up there if you feel like it) so here's what happened, as I remember it.

First of all, we didn't just start out with two stacks, we started out with three. At the beginning we had the linked data folks, the RESTful "just speak plain JSON" development type folks, and the Indieweb folks. Nobody really saw eye to eye at first, but eventually we managed to reach some convergence (though not as much as I would have liked). In fact we managed to merge two approaches entirely: ActivityPub is a RESTful API that can be read and interpreted as just JSON, but thanks to JSON-LD you have the power of linked data for extensions or maybe because you really like doing fancy RDF the-web-is-a-graph things. And ActivityPub uses the very same inbox of Linked Data Notifications, and is directly interoperable. Things did not start out as directly interoperable, but Sarven Capadisli and Amy Guy (who was not yet a co-author of ActivityPub) were willing to sit down and discuss and work out the details, and eventually we got there.

Merging the RESTful + Linked Data stuff with the Indieweb stuff was a bit more of a challenge, but for a while it looked like even that might completely happen. For those that don't know, Linked Data type people and Indieweb type people have, for whatever reason, historically been at each others' throats despite (or perhaps because of) the enormous similarity between the kind of work that they're doing (the main disagreements being "should we treat everything like a graph" and "are namespaces a good idea" and also, let's be honest, just historical grudges). But Amy Guy long made the case in the group that actually the divisions between the groups were very shallow and that with just a few tweaks we could actually bridge the gap (this was the real origin of the Social Web Protocols document, which though it eventually became a document of the different things we produced, was originally an analysis of how they weren't so different at all). At the face to face summit in Paris (which I did not attend, but ActivityPub co-editor Jessica Tallon did) there was apparently an energetic meeting over a meal where I'm told that Jessica Tallon and Aaron Parecki (editor of Micropub and Webmention) hit some kind of epiphany and realized yes, by god, we can actually merge these approaches together. Attending remotely, I wasn't there for the meal, but when everyone returned it was apparent that something had changed: the conversation had shifted towards reconciling differences. Between the Paris face to face meeting and the next one, energy was high and discussions active on how to bring things together. Aaron even began to consider that maybe Micropub (and/or? I forget if it was just one) Webmention could support ActivityStreams, since ActivityStreams already had an extension mechanism worked out. At the next face to face meeting, things started out optimistic as well... and then suddenly, within the span of minutes, the whole idea of merging the specs fell apart. In fact it happened so quickly that I'm not even entirely sure what did it, but I think it was over two things: one, Micropub handled an update of fields where you could add or remove a specific element from a list (without giving the entire changed list as a replacement value) and it wasn't obvious how it could be done with ActivityPub, and two, something like "well we already have a whole vocabulary in Microformats anyway, we might as well stick with it." (I could have the details wrong here a bit... again, it happened very fast, and I remember in the next break trying to figure out whether or not things did just fall apart or not.)

With the the dream of Linked Data and Indieweb stuff being reconciled given up on, we decided that at least we could move forward in parallel without clobbering, and in fact while actively supporting, each other. I think, at this point, this was actually the best decision possible, and in a sense it was even very fruitful. At this point, not trying to reconcile and compromise on a single spec, the authors and editors of the differing specifications still spent much time collaborating as the specifications moved forward. Aaron and other Indieweb folks provided plenty of useful feedback for ActivityPub and the ActivityPub folks provided plenty of useful feedback for the Indieweb folks, and I'd say all our specifications were improved greatly by this "friendly treaty" of sorts. If we could not unify, we could at least cooperate, and we did.

I'd even say that we came to a good amount of mutual understanding and respect between these groups within the Social Web Working Group. People approached these decentralization challenges with different building blocks, assumptions, principles, and goals... hence at some point they've encountered approaches that didn't quite jive with their "world view" on how to do it right (TM). And that's okay! Even there, we have plenty of space for cooperation and can learn from each other.

This is also true with the continuation of the Social Web Working Group, which is the SocialCG, where the two co-chairs are myself and Aaron Parecki, who are both editors of specifications of the conflicting "stacks". Within the Social Web Community Group we have a philosophy that our scope is to work on collaboration on social web protocols. If you use a different protocol than another person, you probably can still collaborate a lot, because there's a lot of overlap between the problem domains between social web protocols. Outside the SocialWG and SocialCG it still seems to be a different story, and sadly linked data people and Indieweb people seem to still show up on each others' threads to go after each other. I consider that a disappointment... I wish the external world would reflect the kind of sense of mutual understanding we got in the SocialWG and SocialCG.

Speaking of best attempts at bringing unity, my main goal at participating in the SocialWG, and my entire purpose of showing up in the first place, was always to bring unity. The first task I performed over the course of the first few months at the Social Working Group was to try to bring all of the existing distributed social networks to participate in the SocialWG calls. Even at that time, I was worried about the situation with a "fractured federation"... MediaGoblin was about to implement its own federation code, and I was unhappy that we had a bunch of libre distributed social network projects but none of them could talk to each other, and no matter what we chose we would just end up contributing to the problem. I was called out as naive (which I suppose, in retrospect, was accurate) for a belief that if we could just get everyone around the table we could reconcile our differences, agree on a standard that everyone could share in, and maybe we'd start singing Kumbaya or something. And yes, I was naive, but I did reach out to everyone I could think of (if I missed you somehow, I'm sorry): Diaspora, GNU Social, Pump.io (well, they were already there), Hubzilla, Friendica, Owncloud (later Nextcloud)... etc etc (Mastodon and some others didn't even exist at this point, though we would connect later)... I figured this was our one chance to finally get everyone on board and collaborate. We did have Diaspora and Owncloud participants for a time (and Nextcloud even has begun implementing ActivityPub), and plenty of groups said they'd like to participate, but the main barrier was that the standards process took a lot of time (true story), which not everyone was able to allocate. But we did our best to incorporate and respond to feedback whever we got it. We did detailed analysis on what the major social networks were providing and what we needed to cover as a result. What I'm trying to say is: ActivityPub was my best attempt to bring unity to this space. It grew out of direct experiences from developing previous standards between OStatus, the Pump API, and over a decade of developing social network protocols and software, including by people who pioneered much of the work in that territory. We tried through long and open comment periods to reconcile the needs of various groups and potential users. Maybe we didn't always succeed... but we did try, and always gave it our best. Maybe ActivityPub will succeed in that role or maybe it won't... I'm hopeful, but time is the true test.

Speaking of attempting to bring unity to the different decentralized social network projects, probably the main thing that disappoints me is the amount of strife we have between these different projects. For example, there are various threads pitting Mastodon vs GNU Social. In fact, Mastodon's lead developer and GNU Social's lead developer get along just fine... it's various members of the communities of each that tend to (sounds familiar?) be hostile.

Here's something interesting: decentralized social web initiatives haven't yet faced an all-out attack from what would be presumably be their natural enemies in the centralized social web: Facebook, Twitter, et all. I mean, there have been some aggressions, in the senses that bridging projects that let users mirror their timelines get shut down as terms of service violations and some comparatively minor things, but I don't know of (as of yet) an outright attack. But maybe they don't have to: participants in the decentralized social web is so good at fighting each other that apparently we do that work for them.

But it doesn't have to be that way. You might be able to come to consensus on a good way forward. And if you can't come to consensus, you can at least have friendly and cooperative communication.

And if somehow, you can't do any of that, you just not openly attack each other. We've got enough hard work to fight to make the federated social web work without fighting ourselves. Thanks.

Update: A previous version of this article said "I even saw someone tried to write a federation history and characterize it as war", but it's been pointed out that I'm being unfair here, since the very article I'm pointing to itself refutes the idea of this being war. Fair point, and I've removed that bit.