As TikTok ban threatens stability in social media ecosystem, some brands settle into the fediverse

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The possibility of a TikTok ban is inching closer to becoming a reality at this point. On Tuesday, the Senate passed the bill that would bar the social media platform from operating in the U.S. unless ByteDance, its Chinese parent company, sells its stake.

Next stop: President Joe Biden’s desk, where it’s expected to be signed. That said, it could still be a lengthy process to find a buyer and could lead to a legal fight. TikTok’s golden goose is its algorithm, which China likely won’t sell off as part of any deal and thus, calling into question what exactly a buyer would get in purchasing the platform. In the meantime, it shrouds the social media stratosphere in another layer of uncertainty as marketers are faced with the threat of losing a segment of their digital audiences. It begs the question: In today’s social landscape, do brands ever own their audiences?

The answer is no, according to three agency executives who say it’s time to start exploring contingency plans that don’t hinge on any of the walled gardens of social media titans like Meta, X or TikTok. Looking for the next frontier, some are pointing toward the fediverse.

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Essentially, the fediverse upends the walled garden nature of today’s landscape, allowing users from different platforms and services to interact with one another without creating individual accounts for each platform.

“Everything is becoming more segmented and it’s hard to really get an understanding of who’s really seeing your content, and how these people are interacting with it,” said Shatesha Scales-Flanigan, supervisor of paid social at Rain the Growth Agency. Now, more than ever, she added, brands need a place where consumers can find them, even if social platforms go away. 

Social media platforms have become fundamentally unstable places to build audiences, says Nilesh Ashra, CEO of OK Tomorrow, a consultancy. TikTok is just the latest platform subject to changes, similar to Elon Musk’s takeover of X (formerly Twitter) last year.

What this represents is another clear sign that as a brand, you can’t only invest in a single platform that isn’t yours,” Ashra said.

A few players have already bought into the idea of diversifying to become less dependent on the social media behemoths. The most notable of said players is Meta, which finally made good on its promise to launch Threads into the fediverse last month. It’s a beta experience, but it means that users can share their Threads post to others platforms using the same ActivityPub-compliant servers that Threads is hosted on, like Mastodon. ActivityPub powers and enables platforms like Threads and Mastodon to operate within the greater fediverse.

Meanwhile, newsletter platform Ghost adopted ActivityPub earlier this week, following Flipboard, a news and social network aggregation platform, which has also entered the fediverse, making content available to anyone on federated social networks like Mastodon and Threads, earlier this month.

“Our goal is if you’re on Flipboard, you’re in the fediverse,” said Mike McCue, Flipboard CEO and co-founder. Like others, McCue said it’s becoming increasingly important to invest in the next iteration of the web. Per McCue, social media could be likened to a toll both where content creators, brands and publishers alike, “don’t really own their audience. They rent their audience.” Sure, it’s yet another platform to build out, but, “It’s your own last place to build a presence and it’ll always be yours,” he added.

Vox Media’s technology news publication The Verge says it also has plans to federate its own site to have more ownership over its content and audience, according to The Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel. 

“You want to bet on that — bet on people who are building new things, solving new problems, who are excited about finding a new version of this internet,” he said.

While publishers and social platforms themselves aim to be first-movers, it’s been a tougher sell for marketers who are more concerned with return on investment than anything else, agencies say.

“They’re already present on so many different social media platforms, and this would be another one to add to that list,” Martin Pagh Ludvigsen, director of creative tech and AI at Goodby Silverstein & Partners, said in an email. There’s no real sense of energy of FOMO (fear of missing out) in the fediverse right now, he said. The fediverse doesn’t solve any immediate business problems for any of the agency’s clients and it’s more difficult to understand than say Instagram or TikTok. But that could change if the ban on TikTok comes to fruition.

“That should be an opportunity for brands to join whatever platforms will come in to fill the void left behind by TikTok,” he said.

Senior media reporter Sara Guaglione contributed to this report.

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