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A Fedi-Vision

This post first appeared in two (1, 2) parts in German and was translated by DeepL.

Some time ago, I shared Leonhard Dobusch’s Call for Action on Netzpolitik.org, and I am still convinced that public scientific and educational institutions have to contribute to make the Fediverse – or initially just Mastodon– more popular. Here now are some reflections on the benefits to the higher education community that I, and possibly many others, hope to see.

//updated 2024-01-09
Other people are calling on universities to get involved in Fediverse. I have co-signed a petition that also addresses exactly these demands to the German Rectors‘ Conference (HRK). You can sign it here:

Share this petition in your network!

Part 1: Mastodon

Initial situation (hypothetical)

Operation and access

For my descriptions, I assume the best possible scenario, in which each university and selected state institutions (such as university didactic centers) operate their very own Mastodon instance. The financing is secured, the operation takes place at their data center in accordance with data protection regulations. The moderation of the instances is regulated, for example by a permanent team (located at the public relations department), a rotating system that is linked to committee offices, or even by initiatives that enable student participation.

Purpose and target group

On these instances, all university members (of the institution or the respective collaborative partners) are allowed to create an account. Ideally, the initial registration is linked to one’s own university account or takes place automatically when joining the respective organization. This means that institutes and other institutions can appear there as well as individual researchers, teachers, or students. Likewise, university groups or working groups and bodies of the university administration (aka academic self-administration). The use is not limited to purely official purposes, since Mastodon is understood as a social network for exchange, not as a marketing channel. Individuals who want to share research, discuss teaching and learning are the primary focus.

Benefits for the university

The local timeline of each university’s Mastodon instance becomes a buzzing newsfeed about everything happening at each university. Students can thus follow their lecturers, get immediate information about their research and exchange ideas. Researchers can see what their colleagues are working on at the neighboring institute or faculty. In this way, new collaborations are created within a university, and synergies become visible and can be exploited.

University graduates can keep their account with their alma mater even after they have completed their studies or doctorate. In this way, the alumni network can grow and be made more visible. Universities like to adorn themselves with successful graduates; role models can be created and cultivated via the social network and make the university even more attractive as a place to study and work.

As public institutions with an educational mission, universities have a social responsibility to uphold values such as data protection and data sovereignty. As a counterweight to commercial providers, universities operate a public infrastructure for themselves and the entire scientific community that relies on open source software. By promoting and further developing a decentralized communication infrastructure, universities contribute to the independence of science from companies and corporations whose business model is designed to exploit user data.

Benefits for students

Students receive a Mastodon account on their university’s instance when they start their studies. They can thus make new contacts and build networks in the digital space, set up study groups, and find out about what’s happening on campus. It is possible to coordinate student (university-political) initiatives and to win fellow campaigners for a cause; across faculty boundaries and across all semesters.

On Mastodon, scientists and students communicate at eye level. As a rule, current scientific findings are also received during studies. The authors of the studies read can be reached via Mastodon. Scientists of other universities can also be directly involved in courses in order to increase the quality of teaching.

Students experience themselves as self-effective when they participate in the university-wide discourse on science and teaching-related matters, as well as university policy issues. They help shape the place of their studies by actively participating in the discussions, and thus contribute to an open communication culture that makes a significant contribution to personality development.

Benefits for scientists and teachers

University staff – including administrative staff – also get a Mastodon account. They can use it to exchange ideas with colleagues from other institutions and universities, plan joint projects, and discuss scientific findings

When changing jobs at other universities, employees can easily migrate their account due to the open architecture. That way, they can retain their network of followers, which facilitates the establishment and expansion of a career-enhancing network. The same applies, for example, to the accompanying accounts of specialist conferences that have established themselves on Twitter: The account of a community can change to the organizing university in each case.

Those who for personal reasons would rather not have an account in a social network at their employer (there are many good reasons for this) can create a Mastodon account at a state or other (public/federal) association. 

Interim conclusion

From my experience, I know that running infrastructure costs resources. I am not (yet fully) familiar with the technical underpinnings of running a Mastodon instance, but I can imagine that the technical side can be handled by most university data centers without much effort. Moderating an instance for the university is the real challenge. It takes personnel to invest time in moderation. The word “personnel” means money. However, in my opinion, the benefits described in detail above should more than outweigh these costs for a university. After all, it is the scientific community itself that sets itself numerous rules. If the netiquette of a university’s own Mastodon instance follows the guidelines for good scientific practice, a solid basis for a successful communication culture should be laid.

Part 2: The whole Fediverse

While Mastodon is only a part of the Fediverse, and due to its functional proximity to Twitter has enjoyed great popularity in the recent past, it is just that: only a part of the Fediverse.

Disclaimer: I don’t have a deep understanding of the software and server or protocol architecture underlying the Fediverse or Activity Pub. Nevertheless, I believe I have gained an overview to develop some use cases that are widely used in software development and mark the starting point of a development.

More than Mastodon

Besides Mastodon, there are numerous other services in the Fediverse that can most easily be compared to large commercial platforms. For newcomers, the picture is roughly as follows:

Twitter – Mastodon

YouTube – PeerTube

Instagram – Pixelfed

Facebook – Friendica

Further, there are more comprehensive services in the Fediverse, such as Hubzilla, which can be described roughly like this (The following paragraph was created with the help of an AI):

Hubzilla is an open-source software designed as a content management system, social network and identity management platform. […]
One of Hubzilla’s main features is the ability to unify various social networking and messaging services such as Facebook, Twitter, Diaspora and Matrix into a single system. This allows users to interact with friends and contacts on different networks without having to log in to multiple platforms and use different apps.
Hubzilla also offers a strong identity management feature that allows users to sync their identities and profile data across different platforms and devices. This means that users can transfer their data, friends, and settings from one Hubzilla server to another to consolidate and manage their digital presence.

Another service I came across is Mobilizon. This short definition was also created with the help of an AI service: 

Mobilizon is an open-source software for organizing and participating in decentralized social events. […]
The main function of Mobilizon is the ability to organize and participate in events and meetings. Events can be public or private and can be designed for a wide range of interests and topics, such as concerts, workshops, lectures, sporting events, and political meetings.
Mobilizon is designed as a decentralized system, which means that events can be hosted on different servers. […] In addition to organizing events, Mobilizon also offers several features for communication between participants. Users can share comments, messages, and posts on an event page to encourage discussion and share information.

Use cases of the universities

With all these tools in Fediverse, what could universities realize? They could continue to become independent of commercial providers, while moving closer together and fostering cooperation and sci-com.

Let’s assume the case that almost all university members have an account on a Mastodon instance, either at their own university or a university-related institution/association; the universities are thus already familiar with decentralized services that are used by all members.

Video server

If PeerTube instances were added to this, each institution would have its own video server through which a wide variety of contributions could reach the public:

Material for the press on current research would have a place there, as would recordings of keynotes and other lectures from scientific conferences, or even lecture recordings and short explanatory videos used in academic teaching. The authorship and affiliation to an institution would be quickly communicated via the respective server. Access to individual videos can be set granular. If videos of external academic communication are publicly available, recordings from lectures or seminars could be made available only to the respective students of one given university. Possibly, an integration of open-source learning management systems such as Moodle, Canvas and ILIAS would be conceivable here. 

Some universities already have such video servers. However, these are either costly in-house developments of individual universities or states, or they are purchased or rented from commercial third-party providers. I wouldn’t call either of these models truly sustainable. Moreover, if everyone relied on the same infrastructure (PeerTube), further developments would benefit all participants equally and the transfer of content (including metadata) would be much easier.

Calendar of events

Recently, I was in an exchange group in which various players in the German higher education landscape were gathered and wanted to coordinate dates on an acute topic. Not coordinate in the sense of “When will we all find a time slot for the next meeting?” but in the sense of “What takes place when and where and can we present it collectively?” The solution: an extensive Excel spreadsheet, sortable by stakeholder, topic focus or type of event. In principle, a good thing, but also very time-consuming to maintain. Plus: One institution is responsible for the overview.

Software such as Mobilizon mentioned above could also be the solution to the (coordination) problem: If each university had a server on which it entered its events (events such as conferences, workshops, (public) panel discussions), they would be immediately visible to the entire scientific community. Such a “global” calendar, accessible to all scientists and teachers, reveals scheduling conflicts or gaps into which one can schedule one’s own event. Filter mechanisms by department, type of event or other metadata help narrow down the search results here.

Research data and publications

Another idea is that research data repositories, OER repositories or publication repositories could be connected to Fediverse via Activity Pub. Each item of such a database would then be easily commented and shareable. Additionally, each reference to this item could be listed below it in the respective repository. You can imagine this as if every PID or DOI had a kind of inbox, in which a notification appears whenever someone references it. Perhaps this will yield new (more transparent?) metrics for measuring outreach and citations, which are praised and criticized in equal measure in the scientific community. 

Open questions

The question remains as to who might run such instances. The major scientific societies in Germany, such as Helmholtz or the Max Planck Society, are leading the way: They provide servers at least for their institutions. For personal individual accounts of university staff and especially students, it must be clarified whether the universities themselves can/are allowed to finance such an infrastructure from public funds. How is the operation then legally structured? Possibly, professional societies of different disciplines, sponsoring associations and friends of the universities or university-affiliated limited liability companies such as the GWDG could also take on this task.

Final Conclusion

Thanks to Activity Pub, all these elements (videos, events, and publications) can be shared and commented on via Mastodon. In this way, a serious and broad commitment of universities in Fediverse would significantly lead to a faster, more direct and more transparent exchange about content of research and teaching. By providing servers in the Fediverse, universities can build an independent, democratically legitimized and publicly funded infrastructure and thus further contribute to fulfilling their social responsibility.

Perhaps – hopefully – Mastodon is just the gateway drug for the Fediverse at universities, and we will soon see numerous academic institutions in the Fediverse.

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