Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter in November 2022, the platform has undergone a rapid demise. Musk has conducted several experiments in a bid to retain users on the platform, and demonstrate its value to advertisers – from whence Musk garners the majority of the platform’s revenue. Among them include blocking links to rival platform Mastodon, forcing users to log in to view Tweets – increasing the number of reported users on the platform, and re-architecting the way users are “verified” on the platform, while removing functionality for users who are not verified; another revenue play which has led to unintended consequences. As Twitter’s attractiveness as a social platform – for both users and advertisers – wanes, there has been a concomitant rise in alternatives. Chief among them are Bluesky Social, backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Instagram’s Threads (Basel Hindeleh provides a great overview here), and long-time open source stalwart, Mastodon.
Universities have been challenged, since the inception of Facebook, Twitter and other platforms in the late 2000s to mid-2010s, to understand how to adopt, integrate and govern their intersection with institutional activities – such as learning, promotion, student engagement and research impact1Selwyn, N. (2012). Social media in higher education. The Europa world of learning, 1(3), 1-10.. An early paper in this space by then-Deakin academic, Stuart Palmer, used innovative data visualisation techniques to demonstrate how different types of institutions engaged their stakeholders via Twitter, showing varying patterns of use 2Palmer, S. (2013). Characterisation of the use of Twitter by Australian Universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(4), 333-344..
Over the intervening decade we have witnessed increasing maturity and sophistication in how social media is wielded by universities3 Benn, J., Mills, K., & Howard, R. (2015, February). From mediocre to marvellous: social media strategy to improve the student experience at the University of Western Australia. In ALIA Information Online 2015. ALIA Information Science Section.. Social media is now tightly integrated with analytics platforms that track student recruitment and retention, interwoven with departmental KPIs for objectives such as “impact” and “engagement”, and even used as an argument to advocate for academic promotion (for example, Professor Inger Mewburn at the Australian National University has written about how her social media presence as the Thesis Whisperer helped her career progress).
While I can’t find a lot of empirical work in this space, the work that does exist suggests that the choice of which social media platforms upon which to build a presence is driven largely through its ability to attract and recruit new students 4Galan, M., Lawley, M., & Clements, M. (2015). Social media’s use in postgraduate students’ decision-making journey: an exploratory study. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 25(2), 287-312.; particularly lucrative international students – given that Commonwealth Supported Places, in general, don’t generate financial surpluses for universities (for example, see the Universities Australia Higher Education: Facts and Figures, 2020, p.14. for a run-down of how the value of a Commonwealth Supported Place for a university has changed over time). This is why universities have accounts on social media platforms popular in countries whose students frequently choose Australia as a tertiary education destination – many universities have a Weibo account (for example, here’s Deakin’s official Weibo account). It is also why universities have “followed their students” onto platforms such as TikTok and Snapchat, disregarding potential security implications (e.g. the University of South Australia).
So why aren’t Australian universities moving to Mastodon?
In late 2022, with the Elonificaton on Twitter, many former users of the platform made the move to Mastodon. I’ve written previously about the characteristics of Mastodon – and in particular, its decentralised nature. Mastodon is not a single platform. It’s a federation of servers, each with its own particular rules, and criteria for who can register an account on a server. Amid the mass migration to Mastodon from Twitter – dubbed the #TwitterMigration – many “brand” accounts – accounts representing an organisation or company – found themselves without a home, as server administrators restricted who could create an account, and, understandably, baulked at providing free infrastructure for the purposes of brand advancement.
This was a key motivation for me to create the Mastodon server, Fediverse.AU, with the explicit purpose of providing a home for Australian university and research organisations without a home in the Fediverse. I haven’t heavily promoted this server, and that’s not the purpose of this post. It’s not listed in the official Mastodon directory of servers, primarily because it doesn’t meet one of the criteria of the Mastodon server covenant; I haven’t set up emergency access for another person (yet). But I had benefited significantly from having a presence on Twitter – connecting with others, sharing research and leads, and amplifying content useful to me and to others with similar interests. And I knew the value of networks; that the connectivity of a social network yields benefits beyond its components – emergent properties 5Mishra, S. (2020). Social networks, social capital, social support and academic success in higher education: A systematic review with a special focus on ‘underrepresented’ students. Educational Research Review, 29, 100307..
At the time of writing, very few Australian universities have an official presence on Twitter rival, Mastodon. There are exceptions; the ANU has “reserved” equivalent names for many of its social accounts on the Mastodon server
mastodon.social(this is a poor choice of server – the reasons why are beyond the remit of this post – essentially, that host is managed out of Germany by Mastodon company founder and key software contributor Eugen Rochko, subject to German law) but as of writing, only the Research at ANU account was actively posting. Some smaller sub-organisations have an account on Fediverse.AU – I feel it’s wrong to promote them here, but I have accounts for groups out of UNSW, University of Melbourne, ANU, and a cross-institutional ARC centre.
So why haven’t more university and research groups flocked to Mastodon?
Without empirical work, I can’t answer with any certainty – so what follows is speculation.
The future students aren’t there
Above, I wrote that social media channel choice had been guided by recruitment and engagement efforts targeted to students. In my interactions on Mastodon, I’ve observed that there are many academics, and aspiring academics (postgrads, postdocs etc). But there are fewer undergraduate, or pre-undergraduate folx. So Mastodon is a poor choice to target brand awareness and marketing efforts, which are intended for student recruitment.
The future students, simply put, aren’t there. And university marketing and social media activities are oriented to student recruitment.
Understanding of Mastodon federation and server infrastructure
I also believe that universities don’t have a strong understanding of how Mastodon as a platform works. There are two key choices in where to have an organisational account; the organisation can choose to have an account on an existing server, or to deploy their own server infrastructure.
mastodon.social is the default choice , the “easy” choice when searching for Mastodon servers to join – the result of choice architecture employed by Eugen Rochko (known as @gargron on the platform).
To be fair, I can see why using an existing server is an attractive choice. Setting up a Mastodon server, while generally straightforward, and while offering the organisation the highest level of control over the rules of the server and any integrations it may have, still requires considerable manual configuration. Over the years, many Australian university IT organisations have outsourced their functions to vendors. They no longer host email. They no longer host many of their SaaS applications (ever searched for a job at university lately? All of them use PageUp, hosted externally and branded to look like the university, using a combination of F5 and reverse proxying). So why would they choose to host their own Mastodon server? Universities that are interested in this option will be wanting their preferred vendors to provide a turnkey solution. They don’t want the responsibility of hosting – and patching – their own infrastructure (the TootRoot vulnerability is a case in point).
As an additional disincentive, the documentation for administering a Mastodon server is better than it used to be, but it’s still not great.
There is a major danger I see here in this lack of understanding – and that’s in the domain names which are emerging as a de facto standard for Mastodon. In general, organisations are adopting a
something.social or a
social.organisation.org pattern for their Mastodon presence. Many scholars are on servers named scholar.social, hci.social and sigmoid.social. As the .social domain becomes more closely associated with Mastodon servers, it’s also become prime domain name property – the .social TLD has relatively few restrictions on who can register a domain name, unlike the heavily regulated .edu.au namespace (well, except that kindergartens can get an .edu.au name, but that’s a different rant). Australian universities have not, in general, thought to register their .social equivalent as a brand protection measure. This is a risk, and adds to the integrity challenges universities already face with their brand being impersonated online.
Side note: if anyone from ANU wants the
anu.socialdomain, I'm happy to give it to you for free on the proviso you actually host a Mastodon server with it. In the meantime, I promise I won't try to impersonate you and drop malware from it, because, well, it's been done at ANU before 🔥
A major challenge with hosting a Mastodon server is the need to moderate content, users and imagery. Recent proposed legislation by the Australian government would vest additional powers in the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to combat disinformation. While this is a positive step, it places additional onus on digital platform providers – here, Mastodon server administrators – to undertake additional record keeping efforts to show how disinformation is being detected and remediated. As a volunteer Mastodon administrator, this is additional work I’m not paid for – and for universities, they will not want to take on board this requirement.
Moreover, universities don’t want to undertake content moderation tasks, as these connote very little benefit while presenting a workload – that all Australian universities in a post-COVID era – cannot justify. Registering on another, external Mastodon server, negates this need. But this simply shifts the onus – on to the (usually volunteer) moderators on the Mastodon server on which the university has an account.
The choice of a Mastodon server on which to establish a presence is crucial to the integrity of an organisation’s brand; if your organisation is in the same digital space as homophobic, transphobic or otherwise discriminatory content, it reflects negatively on your brand. But someone has to do that moderation work.
There are many other platforms to invest in
Currently, many academics are on Mastodon, and their interactions are with each other. There are already platforms that seek to facilitate (and, let’s be honest, monetise) those interactions – ResearchGate, Academia.edu, ORCID, Google Scholar. Why would universities invest in Mastodon when they could turn their efforts to making sure their academics have comprehensive profiles on these platforms instead?
What should universities do about Mastodon right now?
Even if universities aren’t ready to establish a presence on Mastodon yet, there are some activities I believe they should be doing to ensure the integrity of their brands.
- Register their .social equivalent – primarily so others can’t register it and use it for nefarious purposes.
- Provide the ability for academics to list their Mastodon handle on departmental websites – in the same way that most CMSs allow Twitter or LinkedIn handles to be published
- Monitor the landscape – understand which academic organisations are on Mastodon, and what content appears to be resonating with the Mastodon audience. For example, a recent Toot (the Mastodon equivalent of a Tweet) by Professor Inger Mewburn about disabling her Twitter account recently attracted over 1300 “boosts” – the equivalent of a retweet. That’s some impressive reach!
- Start to think about what sort of content strategy would work for your department or area on Mastodon. What sort of content lends itself to the platform? How would this help you reach your research and teaching goals?
Are there any other thoughts you have about universities and Mastodon? Let me know in the comments.
- 1Selwyn, N. (2012). Social media in higher education. The Europa world of learning, 1(3), 1-10.
- 2Palmer, S. (2013). Characterisation of the use of Twitter by Australian Universities. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(4), 333-344.
- 3Benn, J., Mills, K., & Howard, R. (2015, February). From mediocre to marvellous: social media strategy to improve the student experience at the University of Western Australia. In ALIA Information Online 2015. ALIA Information Science Section.
- 4Galan, M., Lawley, M., & Clements, M. (2015). Social media’s use in postgraduate students’ decision-making journey: an exploratory study. Journal of Marketing for Higher Education, 25(2), 287-312.
- 5Mishra, S. (2020). Social networks, social capital, social support and academic success in higher education: A systematic review with a special focus on ‘underrepresented’ students. Educational Research Review, 29, 100307.