An alternative to Twitter

Mastodon trial: higher education hopes for less hate mail

Sociale media. Foto: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

Alongside IT organisation SURF, the association of Dutch universities (UNL) would like to create an environment on Mastodon where students and employees can exchange messages. Universities of applied sciences will join in the experiment as well. The new platform is similar to Twitter, minus all the threats from anonymous users and the inflammatory hashtags.

Mastodon comprises numerous different digital areas, or servers, in which users can join. Users' data does not end up in the hands of a single company and no commercial interests are at stake — at least not in principle. Dutch educational institutions

Dutch educational institutions have been worrying (article in Dutch only, Ed.) for quite some time about their increasing dependence on big tech companies such as Twitter. No wonder more and more scientists and institutions are creating accounts on Mastodon (article in Dutch only, Ed.)

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. “In the scientific and educational fields, there is a considerable demand for a platform to engage in substantive discussions that doesn't have an underlying business plan regarding users’ data.”

In Mufty’s view, Mastodon facilitates free debates more easily because of the way it is set up. “Mastodon requires users to make a little more effort. You have to find servers on your own. The developers deliberately designed it that way. On Twitter, you are automatically presented with lists of hashtags that people are clicking on at that moment.”

The company behind Twitter attempts to attract users in all kinds of ways, according to Mufty. “That includes promoting its most-read tweets, whether or not they are inflammatory. Very little is being done about nasty comments.”

In sum, Twitter is a global receptacle of messages with an algorithm trying to attract as many reads as possible. “On a Mastodon server, you are only be able to see what you search for yourself and what scientists and education professionals are discussing among themselves. Consequently, you reduce the risk of polarisation and the effects of having algorithms determine what you see and don’t see. If you want to search for something on another server, about a topic unrelated to education and science, you have to make a considerable effort.”

As of March, students and employees of the institutions taking part in the experiment can register for a server on Mastodon using their  institution account. This means outsiders cannot intrude. “Before then, there’s a lot we have to try out. We also need to discuss what we’re going to do about moderation — in other words, how we are going to ensure a 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 is key. Some of the questions we're grappling with: will we appoint a group of experts to moderate these servers? If so, will they do it voluntarily or will they get paid? These are questions we'll need to find answers for and the outcomes will depend on our values.”

Some say that the danger of Mastodon is not being confronted with information outside your own bubble. Asked whether that's true, Mufty's answer is “yes and no.” “Of course it’s easier to stay in your own bubble and find kindred spirits, many people are more comfortable with that. We expect the number of anonymous threats and hate messages to decrease in our pilot's environment since 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 possible.”

Though safer, Mastodon does have the downside of not allowing messages to reach a wider audience. The experiment should show how the land lies.