Time of Change - Now is the Time for an Open Digital Society

Imagine all the squares, streets, parks, and venues you visit or live by in are owned by just one or a few companies. They not only own all these places but also determine what they are to be used for, and who can use them. They decide who can be there and who cannot. Mostly, it's free rent, for these companies finance everything through advertising.

Because of this, all places are designed so that everyone will consume the advertising. In the town hall, the agenda of the municipal council is adapted according to the length of advertising breaks. In the park, you can hear advertisements over the loudspeakers at regular intervals. At the playground, there's advertising targeted at the very youngest, and at the retirement home, ads for the very oldest.

Since it doesn't cost anything and this has been going on for so long, no one really thinks about it anymore. It has become the norm. It just is.

I'm not sure that anyone would particularly appreciate this alternative world. Yet somehow we have chosen to organize our digital lives according to this model. I think it's a more reasonable idea to reverse this, letting the digital world be shaped according to the needs and conditions we humans have, both as individuals and in society, in associations, or in public. A diversity of forms of organizations, decision-making systems, and ways of being, based on different needs, contexts, and conditions.

This is the story of how it is possible to accomplish this, already today, if we want to. We wouldn't be the first, this is already being done by other countries, organizations, and groups. There already is technology, methods, ways of working, and knowledge to draw upon.

A more reasonable order would be if public organizations like a municipality or government agency had their own digital representation, and just like I can visit them in the physical world or get information from them, or participate in activities, this would be possible to do digitally. Sure, I can visit their website. But it's more like a display window. The actual dialogue, conversation, meetings, they take place elsewhere. We should be able to have these meetings without simultaneously having a relationship with a company that acts as a digital intermediary, and takes the opportunity to make money from me by taking a piece of my attention.

I want to be able to join my local sports club, the parents' group at school, the digital neighborhood watch, or hang out with synth enthusiasts or metalheads without being dependent on a private platform that ties me to them in order to feed me ads. At the same time, I also want those exciting new commercial digital services, when it suits me. I want to have the freedom to choose, and also the freedom to opt out. Or, for that matter, not to choose at all if it suits me.

So, how do we really want our digital conversations to be?

The question is highly relevant right now as we are in a time of transition. From having been in an era of a few large platforms, where Facebook and Twitter were dominant, we now find ourselves in an entirely new digital landscape. Gone are the days when everyone was in the same place. Gone is the digital square where everyone was supposed to meet. Today, it seems that most social media in pursuit of advertising dollars are trying to become digital amusement parks like TikTok. And Twitter, once a valuable and important place for opinion formation and public debate, has, since Elon Musk's purchase, increasingly come to resemble the comment sections of a far-right blog. This doesn't hold up. It's time to rethink. Society at large, our democracies and our conversations deserve better. For over a decade, we've become accustomed to a handful of providers offering what today is almost a kind of societal service - platforms that provide societal information. But what we see now is that this current state is neither sustainable nor good for society.

It's time to seek new paths in the development of a digital and resilient society. One where civil society, businesses, and public entities see their roles and responsibilities and step forward to create better arenas for dialogue, public places, and digital squares.

There are those who have already started treading these paths. There is technology, organizations, and knowledge that make it possible for us as individuals, but also for public, private, and civil society organizations to stop being locked into platforms that own our data and whose algorithms set the pace for our conversations. Opportunities exist today to use social media that give us more control and are based on open protocols and standards.

Through these services, it is possible to choose and participate as one wants, to own our data and profile, and to choose to take our data with us and go somewhere else, if we prefer that. For organizations like media or political parties, for opinion leaders and others, it is also possible to own their own infrastructure if they wish. It is fully possible to create a digital world where individual companies, organizations in civil society, and public entities like municipalities and agencies can provide information and have a dialogue with others, without being tied to platforms with closed standards.

This is not some utopian future. It's already happening, just not here in Sweden yet. Actors like the EU, the Netherlands, municipalities in several countries, civil society organizations, media houses, and others have already chosen to see the possibilities in these new alternatives. Sweden aims to be the best in the world at leveraging the opportunities of digitalization. At the same time, the OECD points out that we are currently almost last in the class. Perhaps this can become a catalyst for a more curious, citizen- and community-centered, and sustainable digital development of society's digital spaces?

What makes this possible now is partly a technical development that offers ways to develop open and interoperable digital services. Another reason why it's possible right now is due to the fact that the places where large parts of opinion formation took place, such as Twitter, are beginning to crumble and fall apart. A third reason is the current development of legislation within the EU, but also elsewhere, which concerns our personal data, relationships to digital services, and the development within AI. Finally, there are also good reasons to drive this development from a societal security and preparedness perspective. In the event of a crisis or war, we want to reduce society's vulnerabilities and increase its digital resilience. Through open standards and protocols, and through distributed and decentralized digital services, we do not risk an entire system falling just because one point is knocked out.

Let's start with the technical perspectives. This is based on the development over a number of years, of services that are built on common protocols such as ActivityPub and RSS. When many different services are built with the same standards and protocols, they can be linked together and communicate with each other. Instead of a company having its own monolith of our data, with full control, the social fabric is instead built on top of a distributed network of many services, service providers, and technologies, all of which have in common that they share standards and protocols and therefore can communicate with each other. It's about building in such a way that once built and shaped the internet itself. To build by connecting many different services and systems that can communicate with each other, even though they also have differences and areas of use.

With the help of these protocols and standards, many different actors have begun to build and offer a wide range of services that can communicate with each other. There are idealistic initiatives like Mastodon, which develop non-commercial open software, free from advertising and attention-guiding algorithms and ad-based business models. But there are also the very largest companies like Meta, who have shown great interest. All this engagement creates opportunities for new ways to rethink our shared social fabric. Let's look at some examples of actors and platforms that are working to build different building blocks, that together can come to shape a new way of looking at social media. Then lets look at the organizations and individuals who have already taken advantage of this development today.

Mastodon is one of the larger platforms within the Fediverse, which is the name of the collection of social media based on open protocols such as ActivityPub. Like many services in the Fediverse, Mastodon is built on a decentralized and user-owned structure, which gives users control over their own data and the ability to communicate with users on other platforms within the Fediverse. Unlike traditional social media like Facebook or Twitter, where all data and communication are centralized on a single platform, Mastodon is divided into different servers, or instances. Instances are owned and managed by different organizations, companies, or individual users. This creates a decentralized structure where users can choose which instance they want to be part of, or even start their own instance if they wish. It can be thought of like email, where there are many different providers of email services, but it is possible to send email between them. For those who are new to Mastodon, it can be difficult to get started and choose an instance. But since you can always switch and take your data with you, the first choice is not that important. Today, there are millions of users of Mastodon, on tens of thousands of servers, or instances as it's called for Mastodon. As services like Twitter have become increasingly worse and more people choose to leave, a place like Mastodon has come to increase in size and engagement. Particularly in areas such as journalism, technology, public actors and research, Mastodon has become an important arena. As different actors create their own instances, different communities form around them. A feature of this is that it is possible to have a feed in Mastodon where you see what is happening locally on your server, and another for those you have chosen to follow, regardless of which instance they are on.

Instances look very different. The largest one is mastodon.social and has over a million users. It is a broad environment for those who want to be in a larger context. That instance is managed by an administrator, while another instance, such as mastodon.nu or mastodonsweden.se, is managed by someone else. Instances have different rules and agreements. It could be that an instance is created to speak a certain language, discuss a certain topic, or belong to a certain organization or interest. Each instance can set its own rules and choose which other instances to link together with, or federate with. Users in two different networks that federate with each other can thus communicate with each other and see each other's posts.

Over the past year, the interest in open and federated social media has become interesting for many others. Even the largest player in social media has taken an interest in the idea of building a service in the Fediverse, using the same protocol, ActivityPub, as Mastodon.

Meta, the company behind Facebook and Instagram, has recently launched a new text-based app called Threads. Intended to be Meta's answer to Twitter, Threads offers a place for real-time information and public conversations. The app has become the fastest-growing app ever, with over 100 million users in less than a week. Threads was developed by the Instagram team, which means that Instagram users can log into Threads through their Instagram accounts. According to Meta, their goal is to connect Threads so that it will be possible to communicate between Threads and other open platforms in the Fediverse such as Mastodon. Exactly how this will happen, and whether they keep their promise, remains to be seen. Threads is very similar to Twitter, where users can share, respond to or quote a thread and see how many likes and replies a post has received. A "thread" can be up to 500 characters long - compared to Twitter's 280 characters - and can include links, photos, and videos up to five minutes long. Just like with other ad-financed social media platforms where you as a user are the product and the advertiser is the customer, there are important questions to ask about data integrity. Threads collects a lot of personal information, including health, finances, contacts, browser and search history, location data, purchases, and other sensitive info. Currently, the app is not available within the EU, Meta is waiting to release the app here before they can handle the requirements for upcoming regulation within the Digital Services Act. The future of Threads is far from certain and much depends on the users' response. The development of new features will likely also be crucial for the app's success or failure. But no matter what happens in the future, it is clear that it is already a strong challenger to Twitter, whose usage appears to decrease as Threads increases.

It's not just Meta that has taken an interest in this development towards a more open and pluralistic digital landscape. Automattic, the company behind Wordpress and Tumblir among others, has made it easier for its users to integrate with the Fediverse, including Mastodon. Automattic purchased the plugin program ActivityPub for WordPress this spring and has recruited the developer of this plugin to work for them. This makes it possible for owners of WordPress.org and WordPress.com websites to reach their readers on federated platforms, like Mastodon and others. When the plugin program is installed, readers can follow WordPress blogs via their preferred federated platform, see blog posts, and respond with comments. The replies posted on a federated page, like Mastodon, then become comments on the blog post. Considering a significant portion of websites are created using Wordpress, this is a huge opportunity for the ongoing development of open social media. Automattic has also stated that it aims to re-desgin Tumblr so that it too will support ActivityPub.

Even the platform Medium has become engaged, launching its own Mastodon server and integrating their blogging function with ActivityPub. The magazine app, Flipboard, has also created its own instance at flipboard.social, integrating with Mastodon so that its users can follow Mastodon updates within the Flipboard app.

But what creates even more unique conditions is that the Fediverse is much more than just Twitter- and Facebook-like social media. There are several open-source software options in the Fediverse that resemble other services we are familiar with, but with the distinction that these are open-source, without commercial interests, and are based on someone choosing to provide a server for the service.

PeerTube, for example, takes a different path in the digital landscape for video sharing. Unlike known giants like YouTube, which centralizes videos from around the world in enormous server farms, PeerTube focuses on decentralization. PeerTube consists instead of a number of smaller, interconnected video hosting services, which not only creates a more distributed network structure but also promotes local and individual initiatives. At the core of PeerTube lies the idea of open source. This means that the software is provided for free and anyone can install it on their own server. By using the ActivityPub protocol, users can not only view videos and accounts from other PeerTube sites but also connect to other tools in the Fediverse, such as Mastodon, and hopefully in the future, Meta's app Threads. Another distinct feature of PeerTube is its application of peer-to-peer broadcasting, based on WebRTC, a free and open-source project for web browsers. This reduces server bandwidth overload if a video goes viral by distributing the broadcasting of the content among everyone watching it. The development of a platform like PeerTube also offers the opportunity for actors in the public sector and civil society to provide video on non-commercial grounds, where they themselves can share their material in a wider social context.

Pixelfed is another type of social media in the Fediverse that puts the image, not the text, at the center. It resembles a very simple and early version of Instagram, but lacks advertising and has a chronological feed. Like all other services in the Fediverse, Pixelfed uses the ActivityPub protocol, enabling interaction with other social networks within the protocol, such as Mastodon, PeerTube, and others. Pixelfed strives to be privacy-focused, without third-party analytics or tracking. Because it's possible to follow accounts across services in the Fediverse, it is entirely possible for a Mastodon user to see images from a Pixelfed account. This creates new and different opportunities for participation and engagement when you do not need to have an account for each service.

Just as there are services in the Fediverse for writing, posting photos, and sharing videos, there's also a service for sharing information about books and reading. BookWyrm is a platform for cataloging books and is the Fediverse's alternative to Goodreads. According to the project, BookWyrm is "a platform for social reading. You can use it to track what you're reading, review books, and follow your friends." With BookWyrm, you can digitally recreate your bookshelf and share it with your friends. You can import your data from Goodreads, Storygraph, LibraryThing, and OpenLibrary, including books you've read, are reading, and will read. You can discover books by following other people or seeing lists and adding them to your reading list. Books can be rated, reviewed, commented on, and quoted. What are the advantages of BookWyrm compared to, for example, Goodreads? Goodreads belongs to Amazon, tracks your online behavior, and aims to make a profit for the bookstore that owns it. BookWyrm, on the other hand, focuses on community sharing, discussion, and friendliness. BookWyrm is part of the Fediverse and is therefore decentralized. This means you can create your own little BookWyrm instance, for example for your friends, and connect to other instances. You don't need a BookWyrm account to follow BookWyrm users. You can do it from Mastodon or other services in the Fediverse.

There are also services that more closely resemble traditional internet forums, especially as open alternatives to the forum service Reddit. The company has come into conflict with its primary users over the past year, making changes to the service that make it worse for users but create short-term value for the company ahead of an impending IPO. Two open alternatives to Reddit, Kbin and Lemmy, have seen a significant surge due to these events. These new ways of communicating and creating social communities have gained a foothold in the Fediverse. This part of the Fediverse has begun to be referred to as the "threadiverse," creating interesting opportunities for broader and more socially oriented social media. Lemmy is a link aggregation and discussion platform that has been around for a few years and joined the Fediverse at the end of 2020. The platform resembles Reddit in its basic ideas: it has up-/down-voting and is centered around communities (subreddits) where people can publish content. These posts can be either links or text, and users can comment on them. Lemmy has been somewhat isolated from the rest of the Fediverse until recently, even though interaction is possible. Kbin, on the other hand, is an even newer project that is also a link-aggregating platform centered around communities and also has extra microblogging features. Lemmy and Kbin represent a different way to interact in the Fediverse. Microblogging on Mastodon, photo sharing on Pixelfed, and book tracking on Bookwyrm are all centered around individuals. You follow individuals you find interesting and read the content they share. The threadiverse, on the other hand, is framed around topics and communities with common interests. Just like on Reddit, the primary interaction is based on the content, the links posted, and the comments added. You can interact with communities on Lemmy, Kbin, or Reddit, without looking at the usernames of the people posting, and simply take in all the content.

It's not just technology that has developed and created opportunities. Large and small organizations of all kinds have also become interested in this development and have begun to blaze trails in the Fediverse among different services to offer open and accessible meeting places.

The European Union joined Mastodon in the spring and established its own server with the intention of supporting private, ad-free, open-source software. This development came as a result of increased interest in alternative social media platforms, especially after Elon Musk acquired Twitter. A key feature of the EU's joining Mastodon was the establishment of its own server, known as EU Voice. The EU's investment in Mastodon is currently a pilot, but it still illustrates the EU's ambitions to promote alternatives to the major social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Moreover, it means the EU is taking a step towards actively supporting decentralized platforms like PeerTube. The basis for the EU's ambitions is to prioritize individual rights and the protection of personal data. The platforms the EU is now forming, including EU Voice, are designed not to depend on transfers of personal data to countries outside the EU and the European Economic Area. In addition, there are no ads on the platforms, and they do not involve user profiling.

The German data protection authority BfDI also operates its own Mastodon instance for officials within its own authority. They also make space available for other German federal authorities to use the instance for the operation of their own official authority accounts. Political parties such as the Greens and SPD in Germany have started their own instances for party members.

The Netherlands also have a pilot project where the country's government has its own Mastodon instance specifically for the Dutch government. On this, state organizations can discover and use Mastodon, mainly for communication and information. Similarly, the city of Amsterdam has chosen to create its own instance to better communicate with the city's residents.

But it's not just states, municipalities, and cities that are creating their own servers. Many within academia have chosen to organize themselves in the Fediverse. Swedish SUNET, which collects digital services for Swedish universities and colleges, operates its own server where people are welcome to create accounts. Similar developments are seen among universities and colleges around the world.

Civil society is also engaged in many different ways. Whether you like bird watching, Synthwave, Metal, Arsenal FC, Information Visualization, or have any other interest or commitment, it's not impossible that you can find a community of like-minded people in the Fediverse.

As you can see, there are all kinds of technology available. There are actors who have shown the way and that its possible to follow in their steps. There are dedicated users and a lot of knowledge. In the think tank I participated in over the past year, we proposed to the Nordic governments, similar to what is happening in Germany and the Netherlands, to push for the use of ActivityPub as an open standard and protocol for public activity.

With all the initiatives we already see, and the technology that is already available, it is possible to participate and drive development, and in this way contribute to a shift in norms. A municipality, a government agency or authority, or a civil society organization could contribute by also ensuring they have their own Mastodon instance for conversations and dialogue, just like they provide email. They could have a Pixelfed account to share pictures, provide video on PeerTube, or write longer texts on a website based on, for example, Wordpress, where the text automatically becomes available in a broader social context. The football club, the political party, or the scout club could offer members to join their own instance, and build community and commitment in new and different digital ways.

Digital life is a part of life, and its far too important to sit back and let others take responsibility for it. As we can see, it is possible to take new paths and use and contribute to the development of social media based on open protocols. In this way, we all contribute to a more resilient and sustainable digital society.

The development allows media and public actors to own their own infrastructure. Instead of being dependent on large platforms, they can create their own platforms and distribute their content through open protocols such as ActivityPub. This allows them to reach their audience without depending on a single actor and gives them control over their own content.

The public sector can also benefit from this change. Instead of being tied to platforms, the public sector can provide information through its own channels with open standards. By using protocols like RSS, they can distribute their content in a way that is independent of platforms and allows users to choose what content they want to access. Such a development increases the resilience of the public sector, supports the principle of public access, and not least the archiving and the possibility of storing and viewing our contemporary history for future generations.

It is time for our societies, for businesses, civil society, for the public sector, as well as residents, to build new pathways of knowledge and information in a digital age. It is possible to use and contribute to the development of social media based on open protocols and to own our data. Its possible for media, civil society, and public operations to own their own infrastructure. It is possible to create a digital world that is more democratic and more inclusive. It is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity.

Would you like be a part of this journey?