[00:00:00] Nathan Wrigley: Welcome to the Jukebox podcast from WP Tavern. My name is Nathan Wrigley.
Jukebox is a podcast which is dedicated to all things WordPress. The people, the events, the plugins, the blocks, the themes, and in this case how the Fediverse can be integrated with your WordPress website.
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So on the podcast today we have Alex Standiford. He’s a web developer originally from Dover, Ohio, and has been tinkering with web technologies for years, but started his career as a web developer in 2015. He’s a digital nomad, living in a camper with his family for the last three years.
Alex has built WordPress plugins, websites and web applications, and is an active contributor to the WordPress community, making updates to documentation errors and participating in the organization of WordCamps.
If you’re a user of social media, it’s likely that at some point you’ve signed up for platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and possibly one of the many other options out there. These platforms enable you to post content and have it seen by people all over the world. In effect, this is what your WordPress website does. But we all know that social media has managed to replace the traditional blog for many people. The notion of writing a blog post can seem like a lengthy enterprise. Whereas a social media post is often quicker to write and gets pushed to the platforms users automatically.
In the podcast, Alex explains how he’s noticed the shift over time in his own content creation. He’s put less effort into his WordPress site and has posted most of his ideas on social platforms.
This however is something that Alex has decided to stop doing. For a variety of reasons, he wants to take back control of his own content and make his website the centerpiece of his endeavors.
Recently, Alex stumbled upon Mastodon. It’s an open source platform which is built on top of the ActivityPub protocol. ActivityPub allows anyone to create their own social networking software, which can interact with any other software using ActivityPub. This is what Mastodon on is, but as you’ll hear, it’s not the only software. There are many flavors of ActivityPub, which can all communicate with one another. And this ecosystem is broadly called the Fediverse.
Alex talks about why he’s decided to delete many of his old social media accounts in favor of open solutions. And how he’s using plugins and his own coding skills to make it possible for crossposting of posts and comments between Mastodon on and his WordPress site.
It’s a really interesting conversation about the recent surge in popularity of these distributed social networks, and how WordPress can become a first class citizen in your digital life; so much more than just a website.
If you’re interested in finding out more, you can find all of the links in the show notes by heading to WPTavern.com forward slash podcast. Where you’ll find all the other episodes as well.
And so without further delay, I bring you Alex Standiford.
I am joined on the podcast today by Alex Standiford. How are you doing, Alex?
[00:04:33] Alex Standiford: I’m great, Nathan, thanks.
[00:04:35] Nathan Wrigley: This is going to be a conversation which is really up my street. It may be a new project for you if you are listening to this, but it may be something that you are familiar with but haven’t really dug into.
Over the last six months or so, I’m going to say, there’s been a real interest in Mastodon as an alternative social network to Twitter. For a variety of reasons people have brought into question in their own minds whether or not they want to migrate to a different platform. And Mastodon, as we’re going to find out, is one such platform.
Alex has been doing an awful lot of thinking about how this may work, and combining all of that work with WordPress. But before we get stuck into the weeds of that, Alex, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind giving us a few moments just to orientate people. Tell us who you are. What company you work for. What projects you’ve been on. How are you in any way related to WordPress.
[00:05:34] Alex Standiford: Sure. My name’s Alex. I’ve been a WordPress developer since 2014. A WordPress user since 2009. I travel full-time with my family and a camper. We go all over the country. We’ve been doing it for about three years now. And I work for GoDaddy full-time, and then every once in a while I’ll take on fun little freelance gigs, I call snacks. But aside from that, it’s mostly just full-time working for GoDaddy and traveling the country, the United States that is. And, you know, thinking about the Fediverse.
[00:06:03] Nathan Wrigley: Do you want to just encapsulate what the Fediverse is because, I think many people, this may be a new term. It really doesn’t encapsulate particularly well what it is. So, first question I guess is what is the Fediverse?
[00:06:17] Alex Standiford: I kind of wonder if in 10 years they’re going to look at it, that phrase, in the same way that we looked at the phrase blogosphere, right? Blogosphere, like a while back. It’s similar to that in a lot of ways. So basically it’s just where people are, connecting and able to talk to each other socially. Similar to the way that, back then, with a blog post would work. Where you write a blog post and you add an RSS feed and those feeds would integrate with each other and they would like aggregate on different aggregator sites and things like that. Like it was all a part of this way to share content, right?
Today, there’s this newer approach that has the same goal as that, but instead of it using aggregators and RSS feeds, it’s using a specific protocol that allows all of these different social media platforms to communicate with each other. So you can be on a social media platform that kind of looks like Twitter and you can publish something. And somebody who prefers to use a social media platform that works kind of like Instagram can still see it and interact with it completely.
And there’s been a lot of push, and interest in this. Actually Automattic just bought a plugin that would allow WordPress to actually integrate and become a part of this system too. So it would basically align with that protocol, and make it possible to allow a WordPress post to be seen natively on anybody’s social media account, as long as they’re a part of, as long as whatever system they’re using uses that protocol.
So again, if I publish something on WordPress, somebody who’s using a Twitter like experience for social media, could see that post. Respond to it through their app, through their social media account, and it would actually read as a reply on that blog post as a comment. And that if you responded to it, it would then turn around and go back to that person’s post and send them a response. So it allows you to kind of integrate these different ways of publishing content all together with a single cohesive approach.
[00:08:16] Nathan Wrigley: So I guess Fedi is short for Federation, and the idea is that you can combine multiple different outlets, multiple different sources, and have them all communicating with each other. Now, it’s interesting, you mentioned Twitter a couple of times there. You said Twitter like, and I guess that’s an important distinction to draw.
If we were to rewind the clock, let’s say 15 years, I think it’s fairly likely that many of us, if we were into technology and into the internet, our reach there probably would’ve been our own website, our own blog. And we would’ve written content there. And that worked. And as you said, there were ways of connecting your content with other people’s content, but it was log into website, click publish, and you’re done.
But slowly the march of convenience and what became known as social media, really, I think for many people, made that something that they didn’t want to bother in. Because all of a sudden they discovered that all of their friends, relations, colleagues, everybody, were beginning to talk about these proprietary platforms.
We may talk about Facebook or Twitter, but everybody moved over there and the convenience was, well, everybody’s there. So you can post things and it can be seen by your friends, colleagues, relations, but it can also be seen by complete strangers. So you have that capability.
But this seems to be a reaction to that. Now, it may not be, it may be that this technology, the Fediverse and what underpins it, it is just as old. I don’t know, hopefully you can answer that. But it does seem to be a reaction to that because it has certain different characteristics and features which may be of interest to people who are getting, for want of a better word, fed up with traditional social media. So, I don’t know if you’ve got anything to add to that?
[00:10:06] Alex Standiford: Yeah, so that’s pretty much right. So the ActivityPub protocol, it’s not as old, it’s newer. But it’s still several years old. But it’s relatively new compared to the other technologies you’re talking about there. A lot of the reason why it was created was exactly that.
The fact that people don’t want to be isolated and in these individual silos. They want to be able to break out of that and talk to each other. And we kind of lost that between 2007 and 2012, right? Like right at that time where Facebook and Twitter and this true sense of social media really exploded was right at the same time as WordPress blogging was exploding.
And they were all kind of feeding off of each other. And WordPress was, and always has been very open-minded and open focused. It wants to integrate. It wants to be a part of the party. But it doesn’t necessarily want to take over. And then you had all these other social media platforms that we’re doing the opposite of that. They want to take over and they did, right.
So eventually it got to the point to where, you know, you’re not even publishing content on your blog anymore, you’re just publishing it directly on Twitter or something like that. Because a tweet doesn’t make sense. If you think about it, the original, one of the original intents of a tweet was for it to be this ephemeral, quick little update.
It wasn’t really of any serious significant consequence. It was just a little update to let people know, to be in support of blog posts or something that was a longer form that you would write, like an essay or something related to things. Say you’re going on a trip somewhere and you’re publishing tweets, right? I call them micro posts now because I’ve generalized the term.
And you’re sending out four or five tweets throughout the day, as you’re doing things and having this experience. It’s almost like you’re micro blogging, right? That’s literally what it was called. But the idea was that you would then come back and take all that stuff and put it on your blog as a single cohesive complete blog post. But people just stopped doing that. They just skipped that step, right?
So they would just publish these little tweets, and then all of a sudden WordPress became more of a marketing tool than it did a personal tool to be able to provide personal updates. And that’s kind of a big thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is like, how can we make WordPress personal again?
Because a lot of the people who are using it now are companies, right, businesses. And that’s great. That’s an amazing facet of it. But if you look at just WordPress, if you just install WordPress and you just use it as a publishing platform for yourself, it is truly delightful.
Even the block editor and everything about it. If you just take everything away and, you know, you’re not trying to install WooCommerce, or Yoast SEO or all these other fancy plugins or anything, anything at all. You’re just installing WordPress and you’re just using it to publish content.
It is actually really awesome. And we’ve gotten away from that a lot, and I think that this social media stuff and being able to change how we look at our blog can allow us to, not only make more use of our own personal site, but it’ll also allow us to be able to prioritize the content on our site as well.
[00:13:01] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, we’ll come to all of those different pieces. But one of the things that occurs to me, when people talk about WordPress and building websites on top of WordPress, one of the things that is often touted is, you need to own your content. It needs to be yours. You don’t want to be behind some sort of gatekeeper who you have no control over. So in the event that that website or that service is shut down, then all of your content disappears.
And although we’ve seemed to have settled down, there’s three or four different rival proprietary social networks out there, which have seemed to have got to the point where they’re economically sustainable In that journey, I must have signed up to a dozen or more social networks, in air quotes, that just collapsed. You know, they didn’t make it, and any content that I put there disappeared.
So there’s that. But I totally get the point that you make about the fact that people have stopped using, or stopped thinking about using their WordPress website as the centerpiece of all of their content.
After all, why not just go to Facebook, Twitter, et cetera, and post it there because the audience is already ready made. All of the people are there. But the piece in the jigsaw, which I feel is the clincher for many people who enjoy the Fediverse is the desire to shun the algorithm which is now in existence on those platforms.
So if you went to the original Facebook and the original Twitter, you had a very different experience to the one that you have now. Now it’s, there’s a very complicated algorithm, which in all honesty, I doubt many people understand. But it’s able to put content in front of you, and I guess some people begin to question, well, why that piece of content? Is it because I’m really likely to be genuinely interested in that?
Or is it because that piece of content is likely to engage me further, suck me in further, and make me stay here for a bit longer? And certainly in my life, I’ve noticed that you get to the end of the day and you analyze what you’ve achieved that day. And many, many times I’ve thought to myself, well, I probably spent quite a lot of that day scrolling through things that ultimately I didn’t want to see, but the algorithm is so sublimely good, that I’ve ended up staying there.
So there’s that piece as well. There’s that piece, that wish to get away from the algorithm. And so the Fediverse, or at least the technology behind the Fediverse that I’ve seen thus far, really pushes away the algorithm. It’s not that. It’s a linear feed of content and it comprises only of the people that you follow.
There’s no clever system trying to game your attention. It’s just here’s what you’ve subscribed to follow. If you unfollow people, you see nothing. And if you follow people, you see their things.
[00:15:46] Alex Standiford: Right. I heard somebody refer to Twitter as a content refinery. Or not just Twitter, but all the major ones. So Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, all these, as a content refinery. They’re not necessarily there to give you the content you want. They’re there to just give you content. And sometimes that’s not a bad thing.
I think Chris Coyier, he posted something not long ago that was a really good, I thought it was a really good perspective on it. He said that sometimes he wants the intentional read. He wants the intentional RSS feed and the non algorithmic approach, right? Where it’s like, this is what I want to look at. I want to be intentional with my choices here. But it’s a more high energy take on consumption.
And then he said, but there’s also times where I’m like, I’ve worked all day. I’m exhausted. And I want to just sit down and chill and watch some funny epic fails on Instagram and scroll for 45 minutes or so. It’s like low energy. It’s like, I’m letting the algorithm just entertain me, right?
And that’s not any different than channel surfing or anything like that from the past. But I think it has a place, and I think it’s separate from where you read your newspaper. They’re two different things. So, I’m not necessarily opposed to the idea of an algorithm in Mastodon even. I just don’t think, I don’t like that it’s black box. I want to know how it works. I want to be able to control it and customize it to suit my needs. It should be a tool, not a thing that shoved on me.
[00:17:08] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. It is interesting because I imagine there’s a proportion of people listening to this who will not have heard of the Fediverse and think, oh, that’s curious. Okay, I’m interested in exploring that. And equally, there’ll be a whole bunch of people who say, well, I’m very happy with the way that Twitter and Facebook and so on serve me content at the moment. It works to my needs and, there’s no sense of pushing one thing over another, but I guess the impetus of this episode is to explain a little bit about how all that works.
Which leads perfectly to that question. How does this technology work? What is underpinning it? You mentioned ActivityPub, but also I suppose we should get into the whole disparate nature of it. The fact that this is not one thing. It’s a bunch of people owning servers independently who connect together. So, if you could get into the how it works piece, that would be good.
[00:17:56] Alex Standiford: Sure. So, like I said earlier, all of these different social media, pieces of social media software, right? So a Twitter like experience, Instagram like experience, a Facebook like experience, a Medium even, just Medium actually, but different places. They all ultimately integrate with a protocol called ActivityPub.
And basically to put it really simple, it’s a standardized way to be able to communicate between these things. So it’s kind of like REST API, but also on top of that, there’s this very specific set of ways to describe content. It’s kinda like RSS. A lot like RSS in that way where, you know, an RSS feed it has a content tag and a title tag and an author tag. Everybody can use these however you see fit. Whatever fits best for you. Whatever your content is in that spot, put it there.
And it works in that same way, but it also, on top of the consumption perspective, it also works with the ability to be able to interact as well. So it’s a better version of that. So you end up with other standardized things to be able to like describe a response to this and describe what the content is, and the body and all those other details. I could get into the, more of the complexities of it beyond that, but that’s the gist.
So you have this protocol and then Mastodon, which is the Twitter like experience, uses this platform to be able to just talk to the other platforms. Pixelfed, for example, for an Instagram like experience. Or PeerTube even for YouTube.
So you have all these different ones and then, each one of these, that’s just the software, right? So if you think about it like WordPress, because even WordPress can fit into this category too, of different pieces of software that work with the ActivityPub. But you still need hosting. You still need to be able to host it, right?
So some of these software, they’re built to work like Twitter or Instagram, where it’s one server and it’s hosting thousands of people. And obviously it’s impractical. One server can’t hold the entirety of Twitter’s accounts. To be able to do this in a way that doesn’t require ads and allows people to be able to volunteer and donate and support it, is they break it down into smaller servers.
So instead of it being one single piece of Mastodon software runs Mastodon for everybody, it’s several thousand servers are all running the Mastodon software and they’re all talking to each other, exactly like they would as if using the ActivityPub protocol.
So, you’ve got Mastodon that has all these servers and they’re all talking to each other through what’s called Federation, right. Through this protocol, back and forth. And then they’re also able to talk with other servers that are running different software. Because they don’t really care what the software is. All they care about is the protocol, and they’re all able to just connect with each other and talk. And that’s really what the Fediverse is, in the technical sense.
[00:20:53] Nathan Wrigley: I feel that one of the difficulties that I’ve experienced anyway, with people trying to get on board the Fediverse, is they have this notion that because Facebook’s a platform and you are always going to facebook.com to log in. And the same for Twitter. It’s a little bit of a, there’s a bit of cognitive dissonance going on when you realize, well, I can’t go to mastodon.com and sign up for an account over there. I need to go to some other smaller entity. But that’s the point. There’s loads of them, thousands of them, as you described. They all talk to each other.
But you’ve got to, you’ve got to pick a place to begin. But one of the things that you can do is you can port your account, you can move it from a particular server to another server. But also, because of the free and open source nature of the software, certain servers can decide rules for themselves, which may be exactly what you want to hear. It may be music to your ears that this particular server, allows this kind of content, but not this kind of content.
This particular server will communicate with this one, but we’ve made a decision for various reasons that the content that’s being created over on that server is something that we don’t want to see. So it adds all that complexity, but with that complexity comes some wonderful benefits I feel as well.
[00:22:11] Alex Standiford: For sure. And also, and then if you end up with a bunch of bad actors who spin up a server and they’re trying to like, cause some kind of problem. Cause some drama or spread false information or something through the Fediverse. All the different servers, they can look at that one and say, this server is full of people who are not doing anything but causing problems for my server. I’m blocking this server. This server can no longer communicate with my server at all.
And they call it fedi locking. So, what’s happened a couple of times, this is before me, I’m still relatively new to all this, but they’ve had a few scenarios where that exact scenario has happened. Where somebody spun up a server and they were publishing a whole bunch of just garbage, and all the other servers talked to each other, not automatically, but like literally the administrators and everybody were just communicating about the content that was flowing from that place. And said, yeah, this is a problem, we’ve got to block it. So everybody just blocked it at once and it just completely shut that server down. And it’s like a fire, you know what I mean? You smother it and it just dies and it goes away.
[00:23:12] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah. I guess it’s important to emphasize there that each server is run by an administrator, several administrators, it depends. So it’s on the server level that that blocking takes place. It’s not like this cabal of people got together and said, Mastodon, ActivityPub will block this server. No, they’re blocking it on their own server, the one that they’re in charge of.
[00:23:36] Alex Standiford: Right. So if you liked that content for whatever reason, you can be on a server that doesn’t block it. But the thing I really want to talk about today is the idea of taking this a little bit further and owning your content again, right? Bringing it all back to WordPress.
Publishing on social media is fantastic. It’s been an amazing change for me at least. I’m sure it has been for you, like, it’s been transformative in how I approach being able to talk to people. I’ve met so many people as a result of it. It’s been so good for my career and everything.
But, the problem is that I, like I said, I stopped publishing on my blog and I stopped doing that because I was putting my blog on a pedestal. I would say this content isn’t good enough for my blog. This is just a little 25 word post with a picture. This is a small update about me. This isn’t good enough for my blog. I’m just going to go throw this on Twitter.
And what ended up happening was I would publish something on my site once every six months or so. Granted, it’s polished. It’s a great article and I’m proud of everything I’ve written, well, proud of most things that I’ve written. But it was so infrequent, right?
So my site no longer was the singular place where I would send people. I got to the point to where I was basically sending people to my Twitter account instead of my personal site. You know, it makes sense because I am inadvertently creating and publishing the most authentic version of myself on Twitter. On social media. Which is just crazy when I say it out loud.
If 13 year old me knew that I was capable of building a website and building my own cool little space that was just mine, and didn’t belong to anybody else, and I wasn’t publishing absolutely every dang thing that I ever published about myself anywhere but there first, I would’ve been mad at myself.
When I was 13, I had a, it was like a, I don’t know, it was one of those frost fire sites or something. I can’t remember. It was like a self-hosted. It wasn’t even self-hosted. It was like you go there, you sign up and you have like frostfire.com/service, or Alex or something. Anyway, it was crazy, right? It had GIFs of like clouds in the background and there was music playing on it. It was terrible because I was a kid and I didn’t know anything about web design, but I loved it.
I would go to that all the time and I would check it out and I was like, this is mine. I’m doing this for me, and I want you to see it, but this is mine. I feel like I’ve gotten away from that over the years where now I’m, well not now, but up to recently, I was looking at my site and saying, this is a brand, this is a product. This is for me to be able to put the best stuff on and nothing else.
And, it wasn’t an overly personal site. It wasn’t a, it was just a site that felt inauthentic. It wasn’t me. And it really bothered me whenever I made that realization.
[00:26:31] Nathan Wrigley: So in the future that you are imagining, and some of the pieces of this puzzle probably exist already, but some of the pieces of the puzzle that we are going to lay out, have still yet to be created. But the Fediverse allows you to choose to have WordPress as the fulcrum, the centerpiece of Alex’s digital life.
And you are imagining a scenario where you could publish things on WordPress. Obviously WordPress has a commenting system. But that content could then be sent to other platforms. Let’s imagine Mastodon, for example. It could be read over there. But equally, any commentary that happened over on Mastodon would come back and be reflected on your website. And so in this way, the website becomes the centerpiece of it all.
[00:27:24] Alex Standiford: Yeah, exactly. You publish on your site and it syndicates everywhere else. And that’s where I’ve come to, right? So I had a design of my site prior to this one, my current one. It was just a single React site that I built that, all it did was it grabbed content I published from all the different blogs that I publish on. And it pulled them in and it put them on a single feed.
The idea was I wanted this site to be as easy to maintain as possible. I don’t want to mess with it. I want it to just be automatic where I publish content. Wherever I publish it, I want it to show up on my site. And I’ve realized that that’s kind of backwards, and I want to flip that and get to the point to where I’m publishing content from my site, and then having it go out.
Now, the reason why I didn’t pursue that, and I instead was focused on ingesting that content, bringing it into my site, was because platforms like Twitter and Facebook and Instagram make it very difficult to integrate with them in a way that allows you to be able to obtain that public data, right.
I’m publishing a tweet. It’s public. It’s available to the public, and yet I can’t publicly access that stuff via a REST API or an RSS feed or anything like that. Because one, they’re trying to manage their integrations and trying to maintain their servers to make sure that it doesn’t get abused.
But really what it is, is they just don’t want you to do that. You know what I mean? They don’t want you to be able to have that. They want you on their platform. They want you looking at ads. They want you there. And for a couple of years now, because I actually hadn’t even heard of the Fediverse. I’d been thinking about all this stuff. I hadn’t heard about any of this, and I was like, man, I really hate this.
Like, I want to publish on my site first. It was bugging me, driving me nuts, right. And then the Elon Musk, the purchase rather, last year happened and I literally tweeted, because I still even at this moment, didn’t know about the Fediverse at all. I was like, hey, we’re developers. Why don’t we fix this? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I would love to be able to fix this specific problem where I’m not publishing on my site. I don’t want to be on Twitter anymore. How can we fix this?
And somebody was like, well, why don’t you just use Mastodon? I looked it up and I looked into it, and it was over. That instant, literally that day I switched over. I made an, my entire day was lost. I switched over, I made account. I deleted all my tweets. I exported everything. I deleted all my tweets. I changed my profile name to my Mastodon handle, and added a description and said, I’ve moved, I haven’t looked back.
I haven’t missed it. I don’t want it. That’s not what I want to be. I want my content to come from my website, and I knew that that requires open protocols, open source software, and staying away from these siloed, closed source places like Twitter and Facebook.
And if I’m being honest, as a open source WordPress developer, as a person who believes in WordPress and believes in the promise that publishing content should be available for everybody, and things like that. And being able to access and work with that data should be open and, all the fundamental open source values. I have to be on Mastodon.
It’s not even a choice, right? Because it’s simply either you do, you mean it, right? You mean that. You believe this and support this. Or you don’t. Because if you’re on Twitter, you don’t. I just don’t think you do, because you’re using a closed source platform to be able to publish content.
You may be telling yourself that you’re not, but ultimately you are. And it is completely contrary to WordPress. It doesn’t want WordPress to exist. It only allows it to exist because it has to and it can’t get rid of it. Whereas open source things, they want it. They invite it. They welcome this as a part of the whole.
Even from an identity perspective, that’s where it hit me. It hit me all the way down to like my very identity on social media. And I was like, I can’t be on Twitter now that I know this exists. I literally can’t be. It’s not even a matter of what’s better or not. I just can’t do it.
[00:31:22] Nathan Wrigley: If we were to try and implement some of the bits and pieces that you’ve just described, this kind of bidirectional relationship with the Fediverse, Mastodon or Pixelfed or whatever it be. And so you, can push content from WordPress out there, but also that you can consume content from the Fediverse back into, let’s say, a commenting system on a WordPress post.
How is that achieved? Now, I know that the goalposts here are moving all the time. It seems like there’s a whole tranche of developers who are really interested in this and are proposing different things, and there’s different plugins that are trying to tackle this. Given that we’re recording this towards the latter part of the beginning of 2023, and caveat emptor, who knows what the state of play will be when anybody listens this.
Given all of that, what are the plugins that are spiking your interest? It may not be plugins, it may be something else. What are the solutions that you can point people towards to make this possible in a WordPress site?
[00:32:20] Alex Standiford: You can do it today with the ActivityPub plugin, and that’s the one that Automattic just purchased recently. They hired a person full-time to be able to take it on and maintain it. Well, actually they hired the developer, the person who built it and just said, going to hire you and you’re just going to work on this, right.
It will do those things you’re talking about. The problem with that plugin, at least today, and I know that this is something that they want to improve. But at least today, the problem is you can’t actually build a social media feed from it. And what I mean by that is, your blog will have an account, right?
So anybody can follow your blog account, your website’s account. Just by going to your address which is basically your username at your account, your website.com, right? But they can access it and they can see the content and they can follow it, they can comment on it, they can boost it, they can do all the things that you can normally do with it on the Fediverse. And you can interact with the comments and how people respond to it. But you personally can’t follow other people and view their content using your website right now. That to me is kind of the killer limitation that has stopped me from doing that today.
[00:33:34] Nathan Wrigley: It’s around the content creation process, not the exploration of what other people are producing. It’s about you producing and receiving commentary, but not exploring what everybody else is producing, right?
[00:33:46] Alex Standiford: Right, as I understand it, there’s a hope that we can get to the point to where both sides of that, both the discovery and the writing side can all happen in a single, cohesive place. But it doesn’t quite exist yet. That’s kind of the big, for me personally, that’s the big limiting factor.
A lot of people get around it by having a social media account and then manually boosting everything they publish after they publish it. I think that defeats the purpose. But I am doing something that’s not terribly different, to be honest. The conclusion that I ended up coming to was, I’m publishing everything on my site, including social media posts and everything.
And I’m using a plugin, I can’t remember the name right now. Let me find it real quick. It’s called Share on Mastodon. That was pretty easy. So there’s a plugin called Share on Mastodon that allows you to automatically cross publish content that you publish on your site onto Mastodon.
And of course, these things exist or existed for Twitter and Instagram and all those other ones. But again, on a closed platform, they’re kind of difficult to work with and they can just go away at any time. But that’s neither here nor there.
The Share on Mastodon plugin will automatically cross publish content you post on your site onto Mastodon. You can filter it. You can customize how the content is published. What format it is, and all that stuff through the plugin via a filter, or several filters really. It’ll even scan the content and grab the images from the content and attach them in the posts and things like that.
That’s been my solution. As of right now, I am active on Mastodon and that’s it. I don’t plan on being active anywhere else anytime soon. If I do, it’ll be on another platform on the Fediverse. But to be honest, there’s not a huge reason to do it. Once you pick the software you like, the feed can ultimately be the same people. You know what I mean? I’m not there yet. I’m finding plenty of people coming to the Mastodon. I’m good with that.
I’ve got my site personally set up to do that. It’ll auto publish content. But then the other challenge that I ran into with this is the mobile experience, right. Because I’m not going to open up my website through my phone, open up a post, click add post, and like go through this whole process to be able to publish a micro post, a social media post, right? It’s supposed to be this small quick thing that just takes a second. I mean, Twitter, originally you were literally texting a phone number, right?
That’s why the character counts exist. Limits existed originally and stuff. It was a technical reason. It was because you were just texting a phone number and that added a tweet. So it’s always supposed to be this quick, you whip out your pocket, something out of your pocket and you send a text message and it should be that quick.
So to have to go through all of that, I already know that’s a non-starter. If I have to do that, this is never going to work. So I actually had to design my site around the limitations of the WordPress app today. Which to me, I think is getting that better is as important as getting the connections and everything to the Fediverse setup. Because it’s very limited on what it can do.
You can use posts. It supports the block editor, and it’s fantastic. Don’t get me wrong. The editing experience is great, but it’s limited. I can’t customize that app at all. So whatever that app has in it are the tools that I can use inside a WordPress, to be able to solve my problems.
That means I can’t use custom post types. That means I can’t use custom blocks. I can’t use custom sidebar widgets inside of the block editor to be able to organize or change my content. I can use categories. I can use tags. And weirdly enough I can use post formats. And that’s it.
So, I designed my site to support those, to use those. I’m actually using post formats on my site. It is the weirdest thing. I don’t love it. I’m okay with it, it’s fine. But I would much rather have a custom post type with a block editor template, right? So that I could create like a image post type and be able to click on it. It’ll just be a fixed template with an image and a paragraph for me to be able to add text. Like, I would like to lock it down like that, but I can’t do any of that stuff because I’m limited by what the WordPress app allows me to do.
So with those two things, basically now I am whipping out my phone, opening up the WordPress app, tapping on post, clicking, add new posts, typing in my content. And then I’m setting the post format to aside and adding my tags and hitting publish. And I have a little action that runs in the background that automatically, with that plugin, Share to Mastodon plugin, I’m hooked into that.
So whenever my content publishes, if the post format’s aside, if it’s a micro post, it automatically shares the body, all of the content in that post. And then it’ll automatically parse the tags as hashtags. And then it also shares a link to the original posts, as well. So that happens. But then if it’s an actual blog post, right, it’ll just take the excerpt and it’ll do the same thing, but it’ll take the excerpt instead. Share a link to the original post and the hashtags.
[00:38:46] Nathan Wrigley: So, being a developer, you’ve been able to conjure up ingenious, by the sounds of it, ways of overcoming the problems of sharing different types of content. But it feels like that solution is something which you would desire, well, maybe to build yourself, I don’t know.
[00:39:03] Alex Standiford: Yeah. The spirit is willing, but the time, there’s only so many hours. The problem with this is that my theme that I’m using, it’s a custom theme. Now, it’s not a crazy, I mean, okay, yeah, it’s a pretty crazy setup. It’s way beyond what a typical person should be expected to use and set up.
It is mine, 13 year old me, right? This is mine. It’s for me. I’m having fun with it. I’m going to put all kinds of crazy stuff in this. I’m going to overbuild the crap out of it just because I can, and I want to. But, just a more practical look at this. The big problem with what I just said is the post formats because very few themes, if any themes at all, support post formats today. Because they were marked as, they basically killed them off, right, in favor of custom post types.
But then they never actually added support for custom post types in the app. So here we are. So you’re kind of in this weird catch 22 where if you want to do this, you have to figure out how to allow your blog, your website, to be able to actually support post formats again. Which, that isn’t hard. Actually just telling it, hey, I want to use post formats on posts. That’s not a big deal. That’s like four lines of code, no big deal. The problem is the theme support, right? The actual, whenever you’re going through the loop, actually setting it up to be able to recognize those different post formats and to display them appropriately is a challenge, right? Actually integrating it with the actual content.
[00:40:30] Nathan Wrigley: It feels at the moment as if, whilst it’s a lot of fun, you are also saying, it’s a lot of fun for somebody like me. In the sense that, you know, you’re a developer, you can overcome these problems. Given all of that, is there still right at this point in time, is there still a benefit do you think, in just throwing on the plugins that are freely available at the moment and going for it, and just working with the limitations?
Because, again I think if I cast my mind back to the beginning of Twitter. Twitter was nothing like what it is now. It took years and years and years for people to figure out what Twitter would be. For Twitter to figure out what Twitter would be. Facebook the same. It went through this iterative process.
I remember the Twitter fail whale. It was just a hot mess. 50% of the time, everything I tried to do just died. And so maybe it needs to be viewed with that approach. Yes, you may wish to be a part of the Fediverse, but we’re at the beginning of the evolution. We haven’t fully conceived of what that might be. And in the year 2023, 2024, that will become a little bit more solidified. But jump in, have a go with what’s available right now, developer or no.
[00:41:36] Alex Standiford: Yeah, I think so. If for no other reason than this. I always told myself that I didn’t care about the content I was posting on Twitter. Like I didn’t care a lot about it. I was just posting it because it was easy to post things there. I cared about being a part of a conversation. I treated it like a Slack chat, right? Where it’s, truly this thing that’s just going to go away. I don’t really care if I never see it again, that’s fine. But Twitter’s not that, it’s not. Content never goes away as we’ve seen, right?
So, I found that I was, this became especially true whenever we started traveling in the camper because, I was posting all these cool things. These cool like little moments that would happen. Like, I’ll give you an example. I had a, I was in Taos last summer, and it was like three in the morning, and these donkeys woke us up. And we’re at my door, and I was like, what are these donkeys doing here? It’s three in the morning. And I whipped out my phone. I recorded a video. I published a tweet. Didn’t think anything of it.
Well, of course that tweet became something that I was linking back to and referencing all the dang time. I didn’t think anything of that at the time. It didn’t matter. But then I decided I didn’t want to be on Twitter and I wanted to leave, and all of a sudden I’m deciding I’m deleting all my tweets. And I’m losing all that. Right, I gave up all that.
Now I have all that stuff and I hope to someday maybe be able to put it back on my site. But the point is, I wasn’t owning my content. I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t doing it well enough. I thought I was, because I was saving the super shiny, amazing blog posts, but I wasn’t sharing my most authentic self on my site. I wasn’t even sharing all of my content that I clearly cared about, right?
Because I thought I didn’t care about it because I thought that Twitter was just a place for me to chat with people. But it proved to be very much not the case. So now, if nothing else, even if you’re manually, I mean, for weeks I was manually publishing on WordPress and then turning around and posting it on Mastodon.
I was doing this manually, and if you literally just hide, you could add a filter onto a theme that doesn’t support it, and just hide all of the posts that aren’t, like your aside post type. So, if it’s a micro post, maybe it literally just doesn’t show up on your site today. You could still do it, and it would just look funny because it wouldn’t have a title, but some themes it might look fine. You never know, maybe a couple CSS tweaks and it looks great. But, I think it’s worth it for no other reason other than owning your content and being true to that fact, right? And truly believing and knowing that you have your stuff and it’s yours, right?
For example, my family doesn’t follow me on Twitter, right? So I had this really cool moment the other day where I shared a personal update about my son and, my site is set up to where my WordPress site happens to also be set up to where it’s a single WordPress website, but it’s actually. three different websites that are on the front end. So it’s actually managing, casualweirdness.life, alexstandiford.com and eventually it’ll also be managing, WP Dev Academy. So all three of these sites are running through this single site, and it’s just querying the data based on what site it needs to be.
So with that, I’m actually able to not only publish content across the Fediverse, but I’m also able to publish this personal update. And since it’s a personal update and it’s detected that it is, because it’s using a specific tag, it also automatically just shows up on the feed on casual awareness’ site too, which is a more personal lifestyle blog of my family and me, compared to alexstandiford.com, which is a more holistic look.
But it was really cool because I had this post, right, I published it, and I was able to send it and just share from alexstandiford.com, this is a post from me about me, that I want to share with you and it’s got a video on it. I know that seems silly, but there was just something really cool about being able to just share something on a personal level with my family, because I’ve never done that.
It’s always been the blog is the business, right? The blog is buttoned up. I’m not sharing this content with my family because nobody gives a crap about WordPress until they suddenly decide they want to start a business. So, to be able to just use my site beyond networking needs, and be able to just share it, something like that with my family was really cool. It was this like first moment where I really felt that my site was like an intimate, personal thing, not just a tool.
[00:45:48] Nathan Wrigley: You really have gone into the weeds of this, haven’t you? It’s fascinating listening to all of this, and all of the different ways you’ve got of consuming the content from three different websites and I would encourage anybody who likes UI and UX, to go and click the little clock icon on the top right of Alex’s website. You’re in for a surprise.
[00:46:05] Alex Standiford: Yeah.
[00:46:07] Nathan Wrigley: That is something else, bravo. That’s fun.
[00:46:09] Alex Standiford: Thank you. Thank you.
[00:46:11] Nathan Wrigley: One of the things that I suppose people get onto social media for, is for reach. And for that content that they’re producing to be seen by a bunch of people. How do we feel that’s going on the Fediverse? For my part, the graph just keeps going up. The user base keeps growing up. Is it logarithmic? No. It’s more of a linear growth, but it’s growth nevertheless. What’s your feeling on that? Because I feel that some people think, well, I can’t let go of Twitter because I have this business. I’ve built up a reputation there. I don’t want to lose all of that. Do you see people moving over slowly? Is that a trend?
[00:46:43] Alex Standiford: So to answer your question first off, I see more. I see a lot more. Honestly, I saw a lot more in December. It was just almost instantaneous. And maybe it’s because I found the right server and the right people when I was talking about the right subjects. I’m not sure.
It could also just be simply because I joined right at the same time as everybody, a lot of other people who were joining, who were excited about it, and we were all talking about it together. But even now, now that things have calmed down, relatively speaking. I don’t even notice a difference in terms of engagement, but I can tell you that for a while, I was cross-posting both on Mastodon and Twitter at the same time for a few weeks.
And every post on Mastodon was consistently getting more engagement than it was on Twitter. And I have half the followers on Mastodon as I do on Twitter. So it’s definitely more for me. I have like 1800 followers on Twitter, and I think last time I checked I had somewhere around 700 on Mastodon. And it was still, two to three times as much engagement.
[00:47:37] Nathan Wrigley: Yeah, that’s amazing. It definitely seems to be growing. We’ll have to see how this whole Fediverse thing pans out, but it’s, for the moment at least, it’s very, very exciting. I do like the idea of creating some system where WordPress sits at the center of all of that, and the ability to create content over there and see it, see the impact of it inside of your WordPress website. Even though the impact, the commentary or whatever, was happening elsewhere.
If people are interested in this, Alex, and they want to reach out to you because it can be confusing. There’s a lot of strange pitfalls along the way. What are the best places to reach out to you? Don’t say Twitter.
[00:48:16] Alex Standiford: alexstandiford.com of course, is my personal site. So, I’ve got several blog posts I’ve written. You’re invited to ask questions as a comment on there. You can also just reach out to me on the Fediverse on Mastadon. I am @firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s, you know, a perfectly fine spot to message me to. I check that pretty often. Of course, I’m on Slack on several different channels like Post Status, so I’m on Make WordPress as well. You can just message me directly on there too.
[00:48:42] Nathan Wrigley: Alex, I hope that we’ll be able to say when 2024 rolls around that this has taken off. Let’s see how it all lies in a year’s time. Thank you so much for chatting to us about the Fediverse today. I really appreciate it.
[00:48:55] Alex Standiford: Yeah, no problem. I appreciate your time. Thanks.
On the podcast today we have Alex Standiford.
He’s a web developer originally from Dover, Ohio, and has been tinkering with web technologies for years, but started his career as a web developer in 2015. He’s a digital nomad, living in a camper with his family for the last three years.
Alex has built WordPress plugins, websites, and web applications, and is an active contributor to the WordPress community, making updates to documentation errors, and participating in the organisation of WordCamps.
If you are a user of social media, it’s likely that at some point you’ve signed up for platforms like Twitter, Facebook and possibly one of the many other options out there.
These platforms enable you to post content and have it seen by people all over the world. In effect, this is what your WordPress website does, but we all know that social media has managed to replace the traditional blog for many people. The notion of writing a blog post can seem like a lengthy enterprise, whereas a social media post is often quicker to write and gets pushed to the platform’s users automatically.
In the podcast Alex explains how he’s noticed this shift over time in his own content creation. He’s put less effort into his WordPress site and has posted most of his ideas on social platforms. This however is something that Alex has decided to stop doing. For a variety of reasons he wants to take back control of his own content and make his website the centrepiece of his endeavours.
Recently Alex stumbled upon the Mastodon. It’s an open source platform which is built on top of the ActivityPub protocol. ActivityPub allows anyone to create their own social networking software which can interact with any other software using ActivityPub. This is what Mastodon is, but as you’ll hear, it’s not the only software; there’s many flavours of ActivityPub which can all communicate with one another, and this ecosystem is broadly called the Fediverse.
Alex talks about why he decided to delete many of his old social media accounts in favour of open solutions, and how he’s using plugins and his own coding skills to make it possible for cross posting of posts and comments between Mastodon and his WordPress site.
It’s a really interesting conversation about the recent surge in popularity of these distributed social networks and how WordPress can become a first class citizen in your digital life; so much more than just a website.
Alex’s Casual Weirdness website
Alex’s personal website