I love the phrase “wherever you get your podcasts.” I celebrate, just a little, every time I hear a podcast host say that to promote their show.

So much of the internet is dominated by a few massive would-be monopolists who force you to use their applications in order to access the things you want. Podcasting could have easily gone the same way. The phrase “wherever you get your podcasts” is a monument to the fact that it didn’t—a rare success for the open web.

When you talk about the best podcasting apps, you don’t talk about which shows are available where, the way you do with streaming services like Netflix or Disney Plus. Instead, you talk about the actual features the app offers—the user interface, sure, but also things like transcripts and changing playback speeds. We, at Lifehacker, think PocketCasts is best podcast player, but there are plenty more choices that might be better for you specifically. You can use the app you like best, based on the features. This is how the web should work.

The surviving corners of the open web

Now, podcasting isn’t the only thing online that works this way. Email remains relatively open—a Gmail user can send a message to an Outlook user, for example, and both can contact someone who uses their own email server. That’s because email is built on an open protocol, which anyone can implement.

Similarly, podcasting is built on top of RSS, a protocol built in the early 2000s. Tech-savvy people like me love to tell you that the internet would be better if we ditched social networks and used RSS instead. The internet at large loves to ignore this advice—except when it comes to podcasts. When it comes to podcasts, everyone has a favorite app, and they’re all a little different. And, crucially, the difference isn’t which shows you can get. Every show worth listening to is on every podcasting app.

Spotify tried, and failed, to build a walled garden

Tech and media companies don’t love it when things work out this way. Spotify tried to change the open nature of podcasting by buying up popular shows and making them exclusive to their closed platform. The company spent around $1 billion buying up various companies and locking down their shows so that they were only available on Spotify. This is why I had to use Spotify to listen to the objectively best podcast, Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight, despite the Spotify app being a pretty terrible application for listening to podcasts.

Now, Spotify’s work in this area wasn’t all bad. They made Joe Rogan less influential by removing his content from YouTube and most podcast apps—that probably made the world a little better. Jokes aside, though, the fact that things worked out this way points to how throughly Spotify’s attempt to take over podcasting failed. Podcasts, as a medium, reach the most people when the show is offered in as many applications as possible.

We may be moving toward a more open social media landscape

I think the open web is overdue for a comeback, and we can look to podcasting to see how this could happen: You need a durable protocol that allows anyone to distribute to many different apps at once. Something like this feels perfectly suited to social media. Heck, it’s already happening in some places.

I happen to believe that ActivityPub, the protocol that powers Mastodon and other social networks, could push—and is already pushing—things in the right direction. Threads users can now join the Fediverse; Automattic, the company that now owns Tumblr, also plans to roll out an ActivityPub integration eventually; and any WordPress site can be part of the Fediverse by installing a simple plugin.

Now, there are flaws to this system. There’s the complication of Bluesky, a federated social media network built on an entirely different protocol that currently doesn’t interface with ActivityPub in any way. That could change—there are third parties working on connections—and there’s nothing stopping Bluesky from bridging the protocols eventually. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

Plus, the Fediverse is full of the kind of drama you might remember from forums back in the 2000s. For example, right now some people are very excited about Threads becoming part of the the Fediverse, while others are very concerned that Meta, the (evil) company that owns Threads and Facebook, might end up having undo influence. Some large instances are blocking Threads altogether. Drama like this plays out constantly, the way it does in any online community.

Even so, I think the idea behind ActivityPub is a hopeful one. Over time, this could make social media more like podcasting; a world where you could use any app to follow and interact with any person on any other app. That’s a version of the internet I would prefer to our current system, which is dominated by four social networks, all of which mostly feature screenshots from the other three.