In a surprise move this week, veteran social platform Tumblr signaled its intention to move towards implementing the ActivityPub protocol.
ActivityPub is an open-source, decentralized networking protocol that allows disparate social networks to connect together. The software stack is being used by the newly popular Twitter alternative Mastodon, as well as several other social media services.
This is a shrewd move by Tumblr, which was purchased from Verizon in 2019 by Automattic, whose CEO Matt Mullenweg also created WordPress. By aligning with trendy federation technology, Tumblr instantly becomes relevant again after several years in the wilderness.
ActivityPub provides the interconnect glue between different services in its federation. This includes open-source applications like PeerTube, the YouTube clone, and PixelFed which is an Instagram lookalike.
By connecting different applications, users can follow each other, even if they’re not signed up to the same application. Strangely enough, there’s no single sign-on facility as yet, although with the sudden popularity, anything can happen.
New York-based Tumblr, which launched in 2007, has itself benefited from the fallout of the Twitter mess, adding over 300,000 new users in just a few days. More of a micro-blog than a social network, the platform has around 400 million registered users.
Despite the numbers, it mainly caters to off-beat type material, having been originally known for its porn content. When that was banned in 2018, millions of users also left the platform overnight.
ActivityPub is the Glue
Now there’s a resurgence of interest in using the service as a Twitter replacement, which is causing alarm, delight, and confusion among the current user base. The attraction of ActivityPub is due to the fact that people will be able to interact with Tumblr through their existing accounts on Mastodon or vice versa.
Whether Tumblr users will actually want to mix with the general public or prefer to stay behind their very eclectic glass wall is another matter. No timescales have been given for the platform to join the ‘fediverse’ as it’s called.
Mullenweg tweeted — oh the irony — that they were first trying to scale up to deal with the Twitter influx.
This suggests that it could be several months before anything official is unveiled. However, another interesting possibility that comes from Automattic’s interest in ActivityPub is the fact that many WordPress users have been asking for a way to integrate their blog posts into the fediverse.
Around 810 million websites use WordPress at the last count, many of them sporting huge communities of their own. WordPress is itself open source, and so the combination of Tumblr, WordPress, and the existing fediverse applications would create an absolutely huge, connected, decentralized, and independent social network — which couldn’t be bought by any company or billionaire.