Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
22 February 2024

Campus
& Culture

Universities create their own bubble on Mastodon

Users of social media are increasingly regarding Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter. And from March, the higher education institutions will experiment with it. They would like to become less dependent on Twitter.

Universities of the Netherlands and IT organisation SURF want to create an environment on Mastodon where students and employees of Dutch educational institutions can exchange messages. The universities of applied sciences will join in as well. The new platform is similar to Twitter but, hopefully, without any threats from anonymous users and inflammatory hashtags.

The Twitter-alternative Mastodon comprises numerous different digital areas, or servers, of which you can become a member. Users’ data does not end up with a single company and, in principle, no commercial interests are at stake. That provides perspective, because institutions have been worried for some time about the increasing dependence on big tech companies like Twitter in science and education. More and more scientists and institutions can be found on personal accounts on Mastodon.

Substantive discussions

“People have been considering alternatives since Twitter was acquired by Tesla boss Elon Musk, who sacked lots of people and blocked journalists’ accounts”, says Wladimir Mufty, Programme Manager for Public Values at SURF. “And in science and education there is a particular appetite for a platform for substantive discussions without an underlying business plan for users’ data.”

In Mufty’s view, the platform facilitates substantive discussions and free debate more easily because of the way it is set up. “On Mastodon a user has to make a little more effort. You have to find your servers on your own. The developers deliberately designed it that way. On Twitter you are automatically shown, for example, whole lists of hashtags that people are clicking on at that moment.”

Polarisation

The company behind Twitter attempts to attract more users in all kinds of ways, according to Mufty. “That applies also to promoting much-read tweets, inflammatory or otherwise. Very little is being done about nasty comments under messages.”

So Twitter is a big global receptacle with an algorithm that tries to attract as many reads as possible, Mufty explains. “On our Mastodon server you will only be able to see what you search for yourself and what users are discussing in the world of scientists and education professionals. Consequently, you reduce the risk of polarisation and of algorithms that determine what you see and don’t see.” If you want to search for something on another server outside the domain of education and science, you will then have to make a considerable effort.” 

Pilot

As from March, students and employees at the institutions taking part can register with their institution account for the Mastodon server pilot. Outsiders cannot participate in it. “Before then, there’s a lot we have to try out and we need to discuss what we’re going to do about moderation, in other words how we ensure good etiquette”, adds Mufty. “Every server is permitted to apply its own rules, so if we want to prevent disinformation from being spread through those channels, moderation will be needed. Will a group of experts be appointed for that? Will they do it voluntarily or will they be paid? These are questions that we will have to answer and the outcomes depend on what values we consider important.”

Bubble

Isn’t the danger of Mastodon that you are presented with too little information from outside your bubble? “Yes and no”, says Mufty. “Of course it’s easier to stay in your own bubble and find kindred spirits, and many people are more comfortable with that. The number of anonymous threats or hate messages in the pilot environment will decrease because every user can be traced on the server. But if you make an effort, you can also look for other servers and take part in discussions there. Interaction between different servers is therefore possible.”

So the downside of Mastodon is that messages will reach a smaller audience because outsiders will not simply be presented with those messages; they will have to go and find them. The advantage is that the environment is likely to be safer. The experiment should show how the land lies.

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