Academic Twitter Is For The Birds

Academia is a vibrant, healthy, global community consisting of people with a variety of origins, perspectives, and goals. But generally speaking, I believe we share a commitment to building a world where educators have access to the tools and skills we need to do what is best for students, and students are empowered to reach their goals without being exploited by the giant institutions that supposedly exist to serve them.

It’s interesting, then, that so many educators create content for closed, centralized, corporate platforms whose decision makers have amply shown that they do not have the best interests of our students or ourselves at heart. Scholarly publishing is the classic example of this, in that commercial publishers need us to conduct research, write articles about it, and provide peer review, all at our own expense, and then turn around and sell the results back to us. I’ve long believed that the existence of open source platforms like Janeway or OJS only highlight how unnecessary commercial publishers truly are if only we would show the confidence to abandon them in favor of community-run alternatives.

But scholarly publishing is not the only example. In honor of Open Education Week 2020, I’d rather focus on an activity that is very popular among those in higher education that I submit is not actually in our interest: Academic Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, like most people I participate in social media. And I see the value of Twitter in its simplicity. It requires those posting to it to get to the point (not always an academic strong suit!). Through @ and # it enables easy tagging of people and ideas to draw other people, friends and strangers, into a conversation potentially of interest to them. And its mobile app means that it’s accessible nearly everywhere (“I wasn’t ignoring your conference presentation, I was live-tweeting!”).

But Twitter facilitates this rapid exchange of small ideas at the cost of control. It’s yet another centralized corporate entity that absorbs all the data it can find, agglomerating information about its users for resale to advertisers various and sundry. As the saying goes, when you use Twitter, you’re not the customer, you’re the product. And along with that centralized control comes top-down decision making that means that the approach taken by its corporate executives may differ from what many people in higher education might prefer.

Fortunately, Twitter is not the only platform that enables that sort of microblogging. A few years ago, Eugen “Gargron” Rochko took the programming code of an existing open source project and developed it into a platform called Mastodon. But instead of just using that code to set up a single alternative microblogging platform, he developed Mastodon to be free and its use to be decentralized. This means that different people or organizations can run their own Mastodon network, and set their own rules for their own particular community, and yet people with an account on one network can interact with people on other networks by following those other accounts, replying to them, and liking and boosting posts they liked, just as they can on Twitter. In networking terms, this constellation of different Mastodon networks is “federated”, and the sum of them together is often referred to as the “Fediverse”.

And the Fediverse isn’t just connective tissue for different Mastodon networks. Open networks that run on other software, designed for different purposes, are part of what’s being built. One of these is called Diaspora, it works similarly to Facebook. One is called PeerTube, it works similarly to YouTube. But developers of open networks aren’t just trying to copy the functionality of existing services, for example the fine people who develop Moodle LMS are building MoodleNet, which in will allow educators to collaboratively build curricular resources and share them openly, all while interacting with the rest of the Fediverse.

By this point you may be asking if the Fediverse is so great, why haven’t we all moved there yet? The sticking point is critical mass. Twitter has enormous first mover advantage, and most people who are interested in microblogging are already there, which means if you want your posts to reach the widest possible audience (and really, who doesn’t?) then that’s the best place to be. But as Tom from MySpace can tell you, getting there early and building critical mass aren’t unassailable advantages. If we want a social media world that we control, that’s built for us and meets our needs, it’s within our grasp.

As things are now, there are plenty of interesting people already posting in the Fediverse every day, many of which are listed by interest in a directory called Trunk. There are Mastodon networks aimed at people in almost every walk of life, including ones meant for people in higher education. A few are listed below.

There’s no need to make the leap all at once, as It’s also possible both to keep participating in Twitter for now while also getting involved in the Fediverse, there’s even a free tool that lets you connect your accounts so that you only have to post in one for it to appear on both. But I think you’ll find that once you start finding like-minded people in the Fediverse, you’ll appreciate interacting with them in an open environment.

As with alternatives to commercial publishers, all it would take for us to build a successful decentralized Academic Fediverse is the will to do so. So the next move is yours: you can keep devoting your productive energy for the benefit of surveillance capitalists, but I hope you’ll join me in helping to build a better world of open social media.

Fediverse Resources

  • Join Mastodon: an easy introduction to Mastodon
  • mastodon.social: a general interest Mastodon network that is open to all
  • scholar.social: a Mastodon network meant for those in higher education
  • mastodon.oeru.org: a Mastodon network hosted by OERu, an outstanding organization that connects dozens of higher education institutions around the world to collaborate in developing and using open educational resources
  • Mastodon Twitter Crossposter: this free service allows you to automatically post your tweets to your Mastodon account, or your Mastodon posts to your Twitter account, your choice!
  • Trunk: a great way to find Fediverse accounts worth following, based on shared interests
  • My account: follow me and I’ll follow you!