Note: Open Science and Open Social Media (Mastodon, Activity Pub, Fediverse…)

The news that Elon Musk is buying Twitter has drawn increased attention to alternatives to the service. But the current events are an opportunity to further discuss the need for open platforms for open science, beyond the outcry about Elon Musk. In the following I will provide arguments against the use of commercial social media for scientific communication and explain what is special about Activity Pub based services like Mastodon, which form a network of alternative social media services called the Fediverse.

“Open science is the movement to make scientific research (including publications, data, physical samples, and software) and its dissemination accessible to all levels of society, amateur or professional.” (Wikipedia) For science communication, many use popular social media platforms: talks and interviews are put on Youtube or Instagram, and announcements or media files are circulated on Facebook and Twitter. These services are optimized for ad revenue, which means a data economy of attention tracking and manipulation, as researchers like Shoshana Zuboff have outlined. Zuboff calls this Surveillance Capitalism (Shoshana Zuboff: The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. 2019). This economic principle powers social media and how we interact with the web in general. While Facebook has EdgeRank to organize feeds as addictive attention machines, Google has Page Rank. What we call open science generates high-quality content for these advertising machines. This free labor is at the core of these economies, as Tiziana Terranova already analyzed in 2004 (Tiziana Terranova: Network Culture: Politics For the Information Age. 2004). She even wrote this before the significant shift towards smartphones and social media, which characterizes today’s society.

Elon Musk will take over Twitter for 44 billion dollars and plans to make it what he calls a free speech platform. His understanding of free speech and political conflict in society is banal, if not dangerous. Most of his political analysis would be considered “shitposting” on any social media – just he will soon own one of the main social media platforms… And he wants to financialize tweeting through ancillary copyright. These are just the details, but just the announcement that this platform will soon be under the sole control of this billionaire has led many to reconsider open alternatives. The currently most popular one of these alternatives is Mastodon, a micro-blogging platform like Twitter, but in the decentralized social media world. It is based on the micro-blogging standard “Activity Pub” of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), which is the institution governing the technical standards of the web. This standard enables interoperability, which means you can share, like, comment, etc., between different social media services. Imagine you could follow a Twitter user from Facebook and comment on their posts. This is possible in the open social media world. The collection of such services is called “Fediverse” because it is about federation, content shared on decentralized services. While Activity Pub is a fairly recent innovation, the Fediverse based on OStatus has been around for around 10 years. While these open services grew, the big companies closed down any open functionality, like RSS feeds, between them. They became “data silos”. This was due to market competition and is one of the main problems of the internet apart from their economic incentives (surveillance and advertising): it completely breaks the open standards of web communication.

People trust these big services because they are care free, you sign up, agree to some stuff about how they use your data and start. Poorly paid moderation teams filter out the worst stuff. This is often leveraged against alternatives – that they can’t be safe because they miss the capacity to deal with hate and trolls. Many things are handled differently in the Fediverse though. For example, blocking instances (instance is a server) in the Fediverse is a new way of social network moderation. This system currently works through hashtag warnings with #Fediblock. You can move to another server if you don’t like the federation policies or any rules on your server anymore. Your server? Yes, you have to decide on a server. Like back in the early internet, when you would choose where to have your email account. It is a lot like with email accounts; open protocols enable just that, sending and receiving data regardless of who your service provider is.

So how do I choose an instance? There are instances for all kinds of topics; for example on Mastodon, you find them here: https://joinmastodon.org/. Think of it as your neighborhood or your shared space. You will have a local timeline of all posts on your instance, which is an excellent way to discover people. But you can connect with people on other instances or search for hashtags across them. And if you find out that there is an instance full of hate speech, you can ask your administrator to block it. More on moderation can be found in this blogpost by Victor Venema Micro-blogging for scientists without nasties and surveillance

Who are these administrators, that run the decentralized web? Also from the same blog post: “Currently all these services are ad-free and tracking-free. The coding of the open source software is largely a labor of love, even if some coders are supported by micro-funding, for example Patreon or Liberapay. Most servers are maintained by people as hobby, some (like for email) by organization for their members, some larger ones again use Patreon or Liberapay, some are even coops.” Micro-blogging for scientists without nasties and surveillance

Users leaving Twitter for Mastodon has left others worried. They say: I don’t want to leave, this site was important for my protest, or for my research, for news. I want to explain how the alternatives are about keeping connections, but outside commercial platforms. To leave to open social media (like Mastodon or others in the Fediverse) just means changing the protocol, the technology of exchange. From the social technologies of surveillance capitalism to open source federated media. Federation means: we all continue to talk to each other, just across various small servers. Like with email that works from server to server. The same idea, but for feeds, for public communication: an open social media technology.

First difference you feel when using Mastodon etc. is: there isn’t an addictive user interface that is designed to keep you occupied, or an outreach algorithm that wants you to model your online behaviour (shadow banning etc). It’s social media but without the curent hosts. Right now is a good moment to try out how it feels to trust your social media host and the algorithm. You can keep your Twitter account for now and judge the difference. And start to build your connections in other places at the same time, to be prepared for change. This is why this moment is crucial: when the current commercial platforms will fall apart it will not be like the end of Myspace when we moved to Facebook, or end of Facebook and moving to Instagram. It means ditching the closed and commercial protocols for open ones. Activity Pub (the standard used by Mastodon etc.) means you have something like Twitter or Youtube (➜ Peertube) or Facebook events (➜ Mobilizon), etc. but open source. And even more: we can follow and talk across these services – interoperability, federated.

Activity Pub as an open standard for this has only been around since 2018. It is just getting started. Through open-source interoperability, there will be outreach across platforms in the future (see also current EU policy on this topic). Mastodon instances started this week include the EU and the famous German comedian Jan Böhmermann. This probably means that the recent Twitter exodus to Mastodon of tens of thousands per week of users will continue. Advocates of open science should take the time to consider their attitude to social media. Now is a good time to be part of bigger political debates and experience how different research communication online can be (and feel) – all through a shift in the technological protocol.

Further reading:

Victor Venema: Micro-blogging for scientists without nasties and surveillance (2020)

Joanne McNeil: We Don’t Need Corporate Social Media (2022)

Background infos on the Berlin State libraries Mastodon instance in this discussion: https://twitter.com/rstockm/status/1519044515235082243 (2022)

EU Digital Markets Act (2022)

EU starts Mastodon and Peertube servers (2022)


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