Who Wants to Hang Out at Mastodon?
What is Mastodon and why are academics on Twitter talking about it and sharing their new profiles?
Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter was completed and confirmed by his “The bird is free” tweet. Sigh. What has happened since is trolls are testing the limits by posting content that would have gotten them barred to see what will happen now. Many analysts have noted that Twitter needs to make money, which it does through advertising, and advertisers don’t want to be associated with a cesspool of hate speech. Advertisers also want for people to see their ads, and if people flee Twitter, it will no longer be a desirable place to place ads.
So the analysts’ theory was that Musk will not make good on his threat to make Twitter a “free speech” haven with no moderation.
That was last Friday. Late Sunday, Musk himself tweeted a conspiracy theory about the horrific attack on Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband. He quietly deleted the tweet later, but the damage was done — tens of thousands of people had shared his tweet. If Musk (who changed his bio to say “Chief Twit”) has no concerns about personally sharing dangerous conspiracy theories, especially a week before midterm elections, then why should he be trusted with the platform? Adding to the concerns was the firing over the weekend of top staff in charge of content moderation.
By 11 am Monday morning, #leavingTwitter was trending and some academics with large followings are urging people to jump ship. Brian Nosek is asking people to refrain from posting new content on Twitter for the month of November and instead posting to Mastodon. He describes this as a collective action if enough people will go. Others on #academicTwitter are also talking about Mastodon, creating profiles, and sharing them.
Mastodon claims to be a social network by and for the community: “Social networking that’s not for sale.” It is also described as a “distributed social network”. When you set up an account, you have to pick a “server” to join. Each has an administrator and rules for engagement. Mastodon regulates which servers they won’t list for joining with a table stating the reason — hate speech, violent content, misinformation, etc.
Mastodon has seen an influx of people creating accounts, myself included, over the last week. Whether those that created accounts actually leave Twitter or are simply hedging their bets with an alternate location remains to be seen.
Reversing the Financial Incentives for Open Science
Is DEIA the cure for involution?
The word “involution” has become very popular in recent years in China. Despite its obscureness, many people, from business owners to high-school students to housewives, use it to describe their current status of living or working. Most trace the word’s popularity back to the book Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change in Indonesia by Clifford Geertz, in which the theory of involution “holds that a greater input (an increase in labor) does not yield proportional output (more crops and innovation).” I personally like the analogy someone used in a WeChat post: In a cinema, people in the first row suddenly decided to stand up, and those in the second row had to stand up in order to see the screen. Finally, everyone in the cinema was standing. All people were doing more but no one saw more than when they were sitting. In this story, everyone chose to work more themselves instead of questioning the rule. In a society, when the definition of success is narrow, the way to achieve it becomes very narrow, too, and hence the competition becomes fierce. I find it hard to blame individuals who work hard to be successful, but as a community, involution does not yield more. In the scholarly publishing world, things started with the need to evaluate researchers’ performance, and publication became the most weighed element, and where it is published became the criteria to judge the excellence of a publication, and impact factor became the metric to judge the quality of a publishing medium. To this point, success of a researcher is narrowed down to a few numbers and quality of a journal is narrowed down to a simple formula. Journal publishers always want to get (an impact factor) “higher and faster”, like the Olympic slogan.
However, this singular definition of success disregards the vast difference between journals, in subjects, funding, audience, the way research is carried out, language, regions, and many other aspects. The most disadvantaged and the minority usually also have the weakest voice. Again, I respect and cheer for anyone who works hard to achieve high, but members of the community, especially the more influential ones, should look after the overall wellness of the community. When a policy is made, the needs of everyone should be considered and not just those of the strongest. Everyone, not just the policy makers, can play a part in this. Sadly, most of us are much better at adjusting than questioning, at adapting than changing. Like the ecosystem in nature, the more diverse the academic communication ecosystem is, the healthier it is. In this sense, I applaud SSP for choosing embedding diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) as its strategic goals. It’s really encouraging to see that DEI is as popular in the West as the word involution is in China. I can’t say that the former is a solution for the latter, but feel they are related, and when people start to take DEI seriously, a community cannot go too far on the path of involution. After all, if all Olympic referees use the same metrics to judge the games, all sports eventually become the same and who would want to watch that?