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Take back control of research communication, embrace Mastodon

Date:13 September 2023
Author:Babette Knauer
Logo of the software Mastodon
Logo of the software Mastodon

Lately, the social media landscape has undergone significant shifts. This has led academic institutions and others to reassess their presence on X, previously called Twitter.1 The rise of the so-called Fediverse—a decentralised and community-driven social network, with Mastodon as the most prominent software—presents a promising alternative.

In this article, I explore why academics and their institutions should consider a transition from Twitter to Mastodon to support open principles and avoid relying on centralised, commercial platforms where users lack control and data autonomy. Moving to self-managed, non-commercial platforms could foster a more inclusive and academically enriching environment for scholars and universities, while at the same time putting them in control of their content and data.2

Every tweet feeds the beast3

Over the years, Twitter's data handling practices have come under scrutiny. Data breaches and controversies surrounding user data misuse have raised concerns about the platform's ability to safeguard sensitive information. Twitter retains the right to use and share the content generated by its users, leading to questions about (individual and institutional) users’ data autonomy and the potential for monetising user data without adequate consent. Twitter's algorithmic timeline often filters content to maximise engagement, leading to echo chambers and reinforcing existing biases. The platform's struggle to effectively moderate harmful content—even more pronounced since Elon Musk’s takeover—has resulted in increased misinformation, cyberbullying, and the harassment of researchers.4,5

Many academics have decided to leave the platform, as a recent Nature survey shows. Serious and established sources are ridiculed and/or concealed by the algorithm, in favour of the promotion of far-right influencers6 or dubious media outlets that question science and fundamental human rights. It is predictable that future changes in Twitter’s algorithm will progressively reduce the visibility of unpaid content, such as posts from publicly funded organisations.

While some of these problems may result from Musk’s particular interests and politics, they point to a more fundamental issue: Using a centralised platform under the control of unaccountable commercial owners always puts users at the mercy of their arbitrary decisions. This raises concerns about whether it is desirable (or even dangerous) for academics to rely on platforms such as Twitter. Therefore, there is a (not only moral) need for the academic community to engage in an online space that they can control.

Embrace open principles, safeguard academic freedom

In contrast to Twitter's centralised structure, Fediverse applications such as Mastodon participate in a distributed network of interconnected servers known as instances. Each instance has its own transparent community guidelines, allowing users to choose which one meets their interests and needs. In the Netherlands, SURF set up a pilot instance for students, scholars, and academic institutions, including the University of Groningen Library 7 and the University of Groningen, to experiment with Mastodon. Other popular scholarly servers are AkademieNL or Scholar.Social.

Open science principles are increasingly becoming important in academia, and many institutions encourage researchers to openly share their findings and data. While already supporting community-driven publishing platforms or setting up their own non-commercial open access infrastructures, institutions should also adopt open principles in strategic (research) communication and public engagement. 

By setting up their own Mastodon servers, academic organisations can define their moderation policies in an environment that aligns with their values and academic focus. This allows them to be in control of their content, to contribute to public and academic discourse and to safeguard academic freedom.

Mastodon also facilitates academics in cultivating communities around topics, helping them discover like-minded peers and collaborate across disciplines, fostering an intellectually stimulating environment. Most Mastodon instances have a strong commitment to accessibility. This ensures that researchers from diverse backgrounds and abilities can participate and engage in discussions, creating a more inclusive academic sphere. Users maintain ownership of their data, ensuring they have control over their output and interactions.

Take back control of communication channels

As social media platforms evolve, so should the way academics and their institutions engage with them. Exploring alternative platforms is a step towards building a more academically focused online space while engaging in and contributing to public discourse on a non-commercial platform and adhering to open principles and data autonomy.

The advantages of Mastodon, including its decentralised structure, its commitment to user control, transparent moderation, and the focus of dedicated instances on academic and societal collaboration, make it an attractive option for scholars and universities seeking a social media platform that aligns with their core values and enables them to take back control of communication channels.

Update: The University of Groningen Library quit Twitter/X on 20 October 2023

This article was also published in the Data Autonomy Blog of the University of Groningen.

About the author

Babette Knauer

Babette Knauer is team leader Communications at the University of Groningen Library.