Things to consider when setting up a Mastodon ‘instance’
With the recent changes to Twitter’s ownership and possible future direction, some users are considering moving to other micro blogging platforms.
Among the plethora of options, Mastodon, which is described on Wikipedia as ‘free and open-source software for running self-hosted social networking services’ is gaining considerable attention in media, including the Guardian and the BBC.
In large part this is because of the federated nature of Mastodon, meaning neither the platform or its content can ever be owned and controlled by a single entity, thus placing it as part of the emerging concept known as the fediverse.
The opportunity to establish and run their own server, or ‘instance’ as part of the wider Mastodon social network is already generating interest within the further and higher education sectors.
This is partly because of the potential it provides for an organisation to establish its own presence in the fediverse and to administer its own rules and privileges to its users. It also potentially provides the opportunity for those users to also share messages to and from other servers around the world.
After all, what’s not to like about having an in-house version of Twitter, with all the collaborative potential of social media, but where organisations can control who they allow in and set boundaries on what those people are able to do and say?
Every organisation will come to their own conclusions about the potential prize on offer, but as they do so, perhaps it is also worth taking the time to ask the following questions:
What is the objective?
Sounds obvious, right? But time spent getting to the nub of what an organisation is setting out to do – and ensuring that it’s a destination that is agreed with by all relevant parties - is never wasted.
It’s tempting to assume that staff and students will migrate en masse to this new environment, but the main benefit of Twitter is that it’s part of a well-established, international universe of 350 million people (accounts).
Mastodon is still tiny in comparison. Will it prove attractive enough to build critical mass? Moreover, current Twitter networks often overlap between the personal and professional and users may find that much of the gap that Mastodon may initially promise to fill is, in fact, already largely covered by other platforms such as Teams.
Who is it intended for?
Many new users are struck by the apparent complexity of Mastodon, compared with the relative simplicity of Twitter. Will this impact on who gravitates towards any local instance, regardless of who the target audience might be?
And then there is the question of its federated nature. Yes, having an organisational-specific server might seem a great opportunity for brand promotion and collaboration internally and externally, but might such porosity also lead to considerable complications and vulnerabilities when it comes to questions of data governance and security, with users confused as to whether they are engaging on an internal or public forum?
Can everyone use it?
As UK universities and colleges are aware, they have an obligation under the web accessibility regulations (2018) to ensure the accessibility of platforms they use to provide information.
At the time of writing, it does not appear that Mastodon has been tested for accessibility. It then falls to individual universities and colleges to undertake their own audit for its compliance with WCAG2.1 AA or to assume the legal risk of non-compliance.
It's early days and reviews about the user experience from an accessibility perspective are still scant and would certainly need further careful exploration to provide reassurance that any Mastodon instance could safely claim to be a tool on which all staff and students could collaborate and share.
Who controls the content?
Questions of liability are certainly not confined to accessibility. Owning an instance of Mastodon is also to own the considerable responsibility and liability of moderating its content and continuing to be responsible for the safeguarding of staff and students.
Mastodon uses community-based moderation, in which each server can limit, or filter, undesirable content.
However, there remains a major role in terms of administration, including “active moderation against racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia”, with all the legal, ethical and cultural complexity that comes with ruling on these and balancing them against calls for freedom of speech and expression.
A commitment to moderate all content, to take the steps when necessary to intervene and to review those decisions in the face of opposition is not one to be taken lightly and is also one that will inevitably grow exponentially with the increase in members and content. Where this resource will come from and how it will be indefinitely sustained are likely to prove to be important considerations.
What does the future hold?
Oh for a crystal ball! None of us know whether Mastodon will emerge as the next big thing, with early adopters reaping rewards and those left on the sidelines looking on enviously; or whether it will fizzle into relative obscurity in a matter of months.
At Jisc, we have been asking ourselves many of these same questions over the past few weeks and have concluded that, considering the potential challenges described above, now is not the time for us to create an Mastodon instance, but we will be keeping a careful eye on how things develop.
When it comes to technology, none of us know what lies around the corner, but we can bet that it is still better to walk forward with your eyes firmly open; all the better to face whatever might await.
About the author
I head up Jisc's advice team, incorporating subject and community specialists. We cover everything from creating self-service advice and guidance and running public training courses to developing communities of practice and providing direct support to our customers. All of which combine to deliver practical, effective and innovative solutions to universities and colleges.
It is my role to ensure the effective operation of the team, to make sure that it is closely embedded with the rest of Jisc and that we are delivering solutions to our customers that make a genuine and demonstrable difference.