ActivityPub Is To The IndieWeb As A.I. Is To Silicon Valley?

Well before I even got out of bed this morning, I became enmeshed in a Mastodon discussion between the author of the ActivityPub plugin for WordPress and a longstanding expert in designing for community, and it’s worth summarizing here the major point made by the latter.

I’ve been mulling ActivityPub since turning on comments and webmentions here, so the discussion was of clear interest. Even more interesting is that I’ve been in a very autistic attention tunnel fixated on the question of whether or not I wanted to deal with the hassles of having replies from social media included on my blog, and not until maybe midway through the discussion did I understand a critical issue.

To wit: if someone, say, on Mastodon replies to a blog post they see there, they have absolutely no idea that their reply also is going to be republished in the comments section of that blog post on the actual blog. None.

The plugin author’s initial response boiled down to little more than, “But that’s how federation works!” Except that most people have only heard of Mastodon, not ActivityPub, and even if they’ve heard of the latter their entire understanding of it all is as simply Distributed Twitter. They get that their Mastodon replies go to other Mastodon servers. It would never occur to them that they also get republished on someone’s blog.

In a sense, this is the other IndieWeb concept of POSSE—Publish Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere—but forced upon unknowing social media repliers.

(One point of confusion and therefore contention it the thread that eventually was explained away is that when it comes to the other direction—blog comments federating out, for instance, to Mastodon—only the comments of blog authors will do this. People who post comments directly to an ActivityPub-enabled blog do not have the necessary user role and permissions on the blog to be considered “authors”.)

There is no fix for this, as near as I can tell, unless each and every federated blog post includes a disclaimer that says replies from accounts on federated services will appear on the blog. I’m not even sure that’s a fix, but at least it would be transparent. Late in the discussion on Mastodon (minutes after originally writing the preceding), there in fact is some agreement on the idea of such a disclaimer, and perhaps on actually making it the plugin’s default behavior.

I’ve been having a somewhat tangentially related conversation about the webmention plugin, because I’ve chosen to use the “facepiles” instead of including these remote webmentions mixed in with on-site comments but when you do that, the avatars link to an author page, not to the webmention action itself. My argument is that trust and transparency, perhaps holdovers from my days of doing journalism, suggest that visitors be able to tell that the person represented by an avatar really did mention my post. As such, the avatar should link to the action, not the person.

There are things that can be solved technically and some that should be, but you can get a long way if in the first instance you start from the position of figuring out how to communicate, embody, and facilitate trust and transparency.

What kills me is that I’m almost always defaulting to the trust and transparency argument. It’s what led to my own departure from a nonprofit I’d co-founded. Yet somehow, in my autistic attention tunnel of wondering if I wanted to ActivityPub the blog, I’d never even spotted this issue. So, on that level, I get it: you can be so fixated upon a thing that you don’t see relevant contexts outside your attention tunnel.

What the thirteen-hour conversation (if you include that technically it began last night but didn’t really get going until this morning) made me wonder is what became the title of this post: is ActivityPub a thing that the IndieWeb community just seems reflexively to think should be implemented everywhere, without necessarily thinking through the implications in advance, in much the same way as Silicon Valley thinks about A.I.?

“Move fast and break things” isn’t necessarily an attitude you find expressed only within the confines of Silicon Valley itself. I’m not sure if the equation holds but many discussions about ActivityPub certainly do feel this way.

If nothing else, though, the conversation between Pfefferle and Powazek—as tense as it sometimes played with, and despite some talking past each other along the way—shows that even if you’ve been caught in an attention tunnel, and even if you might have moved so fast you’ve broken something (like trust and transparency) you don’t necessarily have to let yourself be stuck there.

Happenstantially, I only just the other day discovered that the Technical Architecture Group of the World Wide Web Consortium has been working on a set of ethical principles for the web. Among them? Trust and transparency.

As for me, for the time being I will not be enabling ActivityPub for Bix Dot Blog. While I’ve some interest in people being able to follow the blog directly in such a way, I do not want social media replies mixed in with my blog comments. As I’ve only just recently written here, blog comments are not social media, and I think such things should remain separate. They’ve different contexts with differing expectations and cultures, and I do not want to collapse them into one stream.