It’s been a breathless few days in the fediverse. Following Twitter’s bizarre self-immolation at the hands of Elon Musk, the many different instances of Mastodon have been inundated with new users. As one would expect, much of the conversation has been about the medium itself, as existing users help new arrivals get to grips with the technical affordances of the new space, that are quite Twitter-like but different in important ways.
There has been a great generosity in those exchanges, but also an understandable anxiety among established users that norms of behaviour, worked out before now in relative tranquillity, should be sustained through a period of rapid growth. For me, the most interesting question about the fediverse is about the nature of these federated communities on each server, and their governance and control.
As things stand, the Mastodon codebase is set up such that whoever administers the instance can devise and declare certain rules of conduct, and users can opt to join an instance on that basis – or not, as the case may be. However, the collective sense of those norms will develop and change, and so many of these communities will need to develop means of hearing, synthesising and acting on the opinions of users as those norms are rearticulated from time to time. How is the voice of an infrequent user to be weighted against those of the founders of an instance, or those who provide the volunteer labour in administration and moderation, and/or contribute financially? I don’t offer a model as such, but some means of negotiating these questions will need to be found, and are likely to vary.
These issues intersect with another question – that of ownership and resourcing – which may in time be of the greatest significance. The European Commission has had its own instance for some time for the use of its officials; there are rumours to the effect that media companies, notably the New York Times, might follow suit, as a service to their staff and as a means of authenticating their content. Most significant for scholarly communication, I think, is the very recent launch of hcommons.social, a Mastodon instance owned by Humanities Commons, the non-profit profile and Open Access repository service originating from the Modern Languages Association. It is possible that other scholarly organisations – subject and learned societies, and possibly universities – may follow suit.
There are three parts to this, I think. One is about resourcing. Right now, there is a proliferation of new servers, spun up quickly by volunteers at their own expense. For a while, these expenses will be modest, and the time commitment to moderation similarly so. As time goes on – if the current growth continues – those costs will increase, and the willingness of at least some of the pioneers to bear them will wane. Some instances already meet these costs by means of voluntary contributions from users. Some instances will inevitably fold, either in an orderly way or more chaotically. If other scholarly bodies decide to follow Humanities Commons, it could provide a greater level of financial and institutional stability for those users who would value it.
The second part is governance. Although these learned societies would not all claim to speak as of right for their communities, they at least have existing structures of representation and decision-making in which some of the questions of moderation, culture and norms (which I mentioned above) can be addressed.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a move by public and non-profit bodies into this space is in line with the general movement towards public ownership of the means of scholarly communication, most obviously represented by developments in Open Access such as the Open Library of the Humanities or Humanities Commons. The reactions of the last few years – against commercial publishing, against commercial sharing services such as academia.edu, and now against Twitter – are all in part borne of an objection to commercial capture and exploitation of the activity of scholarly communication. Though many questions remain, scholarly control of parts of the fediverse could provide part of an alternative.
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