Why publishers are preparing to federate their sites

At least two digital media companies are exploring the fediverse as a way to take more control over their referral traffic and onsite audience engagement. This comes at a time when walled gardens like Facebook and X are becoming less reliable for driving readers to publishers’ sites. 

The Verge and 404 Media are building out new functions that would allow them to distribute posts on their sites and on federated platforms – like Threads, Mastodon and Bluesky – at the same time. Replies to those posts on those platforms become comments on their sites.

The fediverse allows users from different platforms and services to interact with one another without creating individual accounts for each platform, letting followers from one platform like and comment on a post on another platform. In other words, it lets social media networks that are independent from one another “talk” to each other. 

But now publishers want in on the interoperability. The Verge, Vox Media’s tech news publication, and start-up tech site 404 Media are eager to federate their sites — they’re just waiting on the tech to support that functionality to become available to them.

“As an independent publisher, we are really excited about anything we can do to reach readers directly without needing to rely on social media platforms owned by massive tech companies who can take away access to our audience on a whim,” Jason Koebler, 404 Media co-founder, said in an email.

It would be phase two of The Verge’s website revamp. In September, The Verge redesigned its site with a new homepage feed called Storystream that allows its editorial team to aggregate web content and add their own analysis to those posts, mirroring a social media platform’s feed.

How publishers can join the fediverse

How are publishers going to do this? With the help of ActivityPub, a plug-in that allows sites to be integrated with federated platforms. WordPress added an ActivityPub module to its platform last October, allowing sites built on WordPress to publish their content into the fediverse, explained Martin Pagh Ludvigsen, director of creative tech and AI at Goodby Silverstein & Partners. ActivityPub also powers platforms like Threads and Mastodon.

But it’ll take some time. Vox Media is transitioning from its own CMS, Chorus, to WordPress, a process that won’t be complete until next year. Nilay Patel, The Verge’s editor-in-chief, told Digiday that the publication will be working on building this functionality “for the better part of the year.” 

Meanwhile, tech media start-up 404 Media is also currently in the process of federating with ActivityPub. The publisher’s site is hosted on the Ghost CMS, which announced in April it was working to support ActivityPub. Koebler said he plans to federate 404 once the feature is available on Ghost, though he doesn’t know when that will be.

“It’s just a protocol that defines how different platforms can interact with each other,” Pagh Ludvigsen said. 

If anything, he said he’s “surprised” there hasn’t been more adoption, given that “it’s actually technically not that difficult to have your blog or your publication join the fediverse.”

But 404 Media has federated itself through aggregation platform Flipboard, which, as of April, has made content available to anyone on federated social networks like Mastodon and Threads. Flipboard is currently working with about 50 publishers and is trying to woo more into this space. 

“We’ve been actively meeting with publishers to help others embrace the fediverse because it creates a direct relationship with people and eliminates the frustrating dependency on big platforms for reaching followers. People just follow the publisher directly,” Marci McCue, Flipboard’s head of communications, said in an email. “We’ve started to see others reach out to us asking about federating their accounts and wanting to learn about the fediverse.”

“What The Verge is doing is definitely pioneering the future for media,” added Mike McCue, Flipboard CEO and co-founder.

An alternative solution to referral traffic challenges?

These ambitions come at a challenging time for publishers’ audience development, when social referral traffic has dipped and platforms are deprioritizing content from publishers — and, most recently, Google Search layering in generative AI.

“As journalists, we’ve built audiences on those platforms and then have functionally lost them as our jobs change or the algorithms change or the platforms change. The fediverse offers a different path forward where we can move our accounts as necessary and its decentralized nature means it’s not owned by any one company,” Koebler said.

The promises of the fediverse can “solve a pretty huge distribution problem,” Patel said. Instead of spending time building a presence on other platforms for their benefit, a publisher can do that on their own sites — while giving readers the ability to see those posts on other federated platforms.

It’s part of a larger movement amongst publishers putting more resources into improving their homepages and sites to make them more of a destination.

It seems to be working for The Verge. Loyal readership, defined as those that have five or more sessions in a calendar month, increased by 47% from Q1 to Q4 in 2023, according to Patel. Time spent on the homepage went up from an average of 6 minutes and 39 seconds to 8 minutes and 10 seconds in that same time period, he added — and that’s despite the fact that traffic dipped (not a unique problem in digital publishing these days).

“We should stop being suppliers and we should start marketing our own products,” Patel said.

However, federated platforms have a big challenge: Their user bases are just a fraction of the big dogs. Mastodon has about 1.8 million monthly active users and Threads has over 130 million, but that’s still far off from X’s 550 million users and Facebook’s whopping 3 billion.

But Patel isn’t concerned. He thinks it’s a bet worth making. “You want to bet on… people who are building new things, solving new problems, who are excited about finding a new version of this internet,” he said.

Koebler said, “It’s still early days but [the fediverse’s] promise is a more human and humane version of the internet that offers us and our audience more control and customization, and we want to support that effort.”

https://digiday.com/?p=545897

More in Media

Daily Mail plans to debut a dozen YouTube shows in 2024 in long-form video push

Daily Mail is making a big push into long-form video with plans to debut a dozen shows on YouTube by the end of this year.

Publishers’ top tips for pitching advertisers at Cannes

The art of making sales at Cannes may not be the same strategy taught in business school.

AI Briefing: What would Steve Jobs say about Apple’s ambitions for AI?

Last week’s WWDC made plenty of headlines with various AI updates across Apple’s operating system and apps.