Flipboard’s ActivityPub Embrace Sparks Content Revolution in the Fediverse

When the iPad debuted nearly 14 years ago, one app highlighted how we’d experience curated content on tablets. Flipboard* that day generated buzz because of how users “flipped” through it. Since then, the company has actively worked to enhance how it exposes people to ideas and stories. With Magazines as its atomic unit, Flipboard enables users to not only organize their content but also discover ones based on their passions. They can also produce a package containing a finite list of articles called Storyboards, and build a community through collaborative Magazines.

However, as of late, Flipboard is making moves to break free from the traditional app paradigm. For years, not only could you find content from your favorite publisher but also from those you follow on social media. But, after Twitter restricted API access in 2023, Flipboard chose to pursue what might be considered a higher calling.

* Disclosure: I previously worked at Flipboard and own a small amount of equity. Rest assured, the opinions expressed here are solely my own. I have — and remain — a big fan of the technology.

From Centralized to Decentralized Content

In February 2023, Flipboard CEO Mike McCue declared support for Mastodon, ActivityPub and the Fediverse. He wanted to break open the walled garden of social content and expose it to anyone. The lynchpin to this pursuit is ActivityPub, a W3C-adopted open protocol. It makes social networking interoperable, allowing for the connection of “everything to a single social graph and content-sharing system.

Why is this interesting? Because most social media today is controlled by a few large proprietary platforms, often with leaders who value engagement at all costs, regardless of the impact on our democracies, societies and mental health. Change is badly needed and the Fediverse represents a fundamentally more open and equitable approach to social media.

The Fediverse is a revolution years in the making by a pioneering group of engineers and technologists similar to the ones who created the web. Their mission is to gradually establish open alternatives to today’s closed, proprietary services like Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Instagram while enabling entirely new services to be invented that will connect people and content in new ways that are far healthier, more transparent and less manipulated.

– Flipboard CEO Mike McCue (Inside Flipboard)

To start, Flipboard initiated a Mastodon server for its users to begin their journey in the Fediverse. The whole thing initially appeared confusing to me — is this all the grandeur the technology affords us? But after more reflection, one can see the server as a guinea pig for experimentation. It also provided the company with a decentralized playground in which they can better engage with their community of users and creators.

Beyond that, Flipboard replaced Twitter when it started ingesting Fediverse content into its app.

Flipboard’s Big Idea

Things kicked into overdrive on Dec. 18 when the company announced it would open itself up to Threads, Pixelfed, Firefish, PeerTube and other apps supporting ActivityPub. It bucks our conventional understanding of how to use Flipboard. Historically, that’s where the information cycle ends.

In the future, the company will make the content it imports accessible to third-party apps. When you flip content into one of your Magazines, it triggers a social post that goes out to your @flipboard.com feed. Think of it as an RSS feed, enabling followers to discover the Magazine it’s in.

As a long-time user, doing something else with flipped content has been a sought-after request. In a centralized web, I can share flipped content across my social channels one by one, but it’s tedious. However, platforms supporting ActivityPub will be able to see one single feed. It offers one seamless experience, at least that’s the technology’s promise.

More than two dozen publishers and creators have been onboarded, including The Verge, Semafor, Smithsonian Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, Polygon, The Root and Frommers.

This is the single largest expansion of the Flipboard ecosystem since we launched as a social magazine in 2010. I’m incredibly excited about how federation will benefit everyone on Flipboard and in the Fediverse.

More importantly, I hope we can serve as inspiration for other apps and services contemplating the Fediverse.

As more services federate the value of the Fediverse will increase exponentially and we will usher in a more vibrant and interoperable era for the people who make great content and everyone who enjoys it.

– Flipboard CEO Mike McCue (Inside Flipboard)

Organizing Content in the Fediverse

The trend of decentralizing became recently popular thanks to Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. Like Flipboard, Medium, Mozilla, Tumblr and Meta say they’ve adopted ActivityPub. My former employer stands out because it’s the sole content and discovery platform. Meta’s Threads recently began embracing the Fediverse, whereas Medium and Tumblr function as blogging apps.

Something that separates Flipboard from peer aggregation apps is that it doesn’t cannibalize site traffic from publishers. The app functions as a traffic cop helping point you to the content you want to read. And by executing McCue’s vision of tearing down the proverbial social media walled garden, the company wants there to be a Cambrian explosion with content available everywhere.

Does embracing ActivityPub hurt Flipboard’s core mission of informing and inspiring the world? On the contrary, it likely enhances it. McCue envisions the company playing in a broader field—an open directory for the decentralized web.

Moving Curation Beyond Being App-Centric

He once told me that Flipboard should become the go-to place for what you’re passionate about. Incorporating ActivityPub could enable users to share content related to those interests with their followers, thereby driving new users to the app. A clever growth hack, right? Or perhaps also that McCue wants to eliminate a perceived dead-end in the information superhighway and ensure there’s a steady and continuous flow of content on the web.

Even so, the embrace of ActivityPub is not without concerns. Flipboard’s CEO has outlined steps the company will take to mitigate risk. This includes things like strengthening its global moderation capabilities, remaining true to Mastodon’s privacy settings, continuing to block content from domains it identifies as “toxic,” and building good relationships with Fediverse instance owners.

Flipboard CEO and co-founder Mike McCue appears on stage at a ReadWrite Mix event hosted at Say Media in 2014 in San Francisco, CA. Photo credit: Ken Yeung
Flipboard CEO and co-founder Mike McCue appears on stage at a ReadWrite Mix event hosted at Say Media in 2014 in San Francisco, CA. Photo credit: Ken Yeung

Steps to Federation

The Federation of Flipboard takes place in three phases, with completion by April 2024:

  • Phase 1 (Today): We are federating 25 publishers and creators so that we can test and gather feedback
  • Phase 2 (January 2024): We will enable anyone in the Fediverse to follow and engage with any public curator on Flipboard
  • Phase 3 (April 2024): We will enable anyone on Flipboard to follow and engage with any public account in the Fediverse

In an episode of his podcast “Dot Social,” McCue discusses the decentralization movement with Techdirt’s Mike Masnick.

YouTube player

Flipboard Tips for Publishers on Leveraging ActivityPub

But what does this mean for publishers? Below are a few thoughts on what a workflow may look like:

  • Set up a Flipboard publisher account and pipe content into different Magazines using an RSS feed
  • Instead of having a one-size-fits-all Magazine for your content, I’d advise creating multiple Magazines catering to different topics or themes (e.g., business, technology, science, health, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, or sports)
  • Flipped content will be pushed to ActivityPub-supported platforms through the publisher’s @flipboard.com account. The post not only features the title and URL, but also a linkback to the Flipboard Magazine. This is why I suggest creating different Magazines for your account.
  • Because content is distributed using a @flipboard.com account, the publisher’s main social channels won’t be overwhelmed with content. The ActivityPub feeds are a river of ongoing content, not necessarily in chronological order.
  • With breaking news or tentpole events, publishers could create a Magazine and have curated stories shared on @flipboard.com, spotlighting not only their coverage but the Magazine for interested readers to follow for additional related content
  • It doesn’t appear that everything you flip into Magazines will trigger a social post, so you’re able to be selective with what gets promoted off-app

Because large publishers might have multiple social media channels, if there was a way, publishers could launch a Fediverse instance so they could set up vertical-specific accounts. Then, readers could follow those individual accounts that have piped content from Flipboard.

Exciting times for Flipboard?

It’s clear work is not done and 2024 will be an interesting time for Flipboard. Will the community buy into its Fediverse vision? Will it move the needle for publishers who are searching for clarity following a year of turmoil in the traditional and social media landscape?

As the saying goes, it’s still “early days,” but the Flipboard we know has taken its first evolutionary steps, one that sees it targeting a higher plane of connectedness with our content.

And before I forget, follow me on Flipboard to check out the content I’m reading 😉

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