Gophers and Elephants: A Mastodon-supported Goucher Community?

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Photo Credit: NewDinasours.com

Social networking is a natural and important part of the Goucher community and culture. Goucher reaches out to students, faculty, and family members through traditional networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Students, faculty, and staff have access to the GopherApp for iOS and Android to post information, exchange messages, and get feedback. Goucher clearly intends to make use of social technologies to further connect with people with little to no obstruction. However, traditional networks’ own political agenda can interfere with Goucher’s plans in posting their own content, as centralized networks and their parent companies own users’ data. While the GopherApp relinquishes control of their data, the app also comes with its own issues and doesn’t completely solve the problem.

In my sophomore year of high school, I researched the disadvantages of using Instagram to share photos from a legal perspective and a photographer’s perspective. I discovered that Instagram’s data is centralized –– Instagram takes away the rights to my photos. Data centralization can prove detrimental to institutions that own photos or videos, as they are forced to relinquish this data to another company. In an interview with April Glaser and Will Oremus for Slate magazine, Eugen Rochko, the developer behind a social network called Mastodon, makes the issues with centralization very clear: “Centralization is not just centralization of power, but […] data as well […] the more data a platform like Facebook collects—it’s all in one place. It’s easy to access and to analyze.” Despite having some advantages in content control and review, data centralization shifts the controls from the user to the company.

In an attempt to restore control to users, Rockho is working on a new network called Mastodon. It’s a decentralized social network that makes up for the disadvantages of centralized social networks. In the aforementioned interview, he also mentions how Mastodon works in this regard: “With Mastodon, the data is separated. Every server stores only the data of its local signed-up users and the data that they subscribe to from their friends.” Eugen doesn’t own all of Mastodon; rather, he just owns his particular server (aka an ‘instance’). These instances talk to each other to make a network rather than being hosted in one place: this is known as federation. You can think of it like the federation in the Star Trek series: there are many planets and species, but they all come together to form a single federation without being a giant entity.

Adopting Mastodon would give Goucher an opportunity to host its own instance that interacts with others. However, Mastodon’s federation can also lead to access to unwanted servers that could potentially be harmful for the Goucher community or that can violate laws. Thankfully, Rochko has also thought of this. In the same interview, he states that owners of an instance can block other instances from the timeline, images, or the whole instance altogether. Although some consider this as censorship of Mastodon data, this also provides Goucher with the ability to allow students to interact with other Mastodon users from other instances.

Decentralized social networks like Mastodon have an advantage on interoperability. Many developers have been making networks that can work with others; examples include Instagram-alternative PixelFed and YouTube-alternative PeerTube. The interoperability between said networks is possible because of an underlying technology: ActivityPub. ActivityPub works a lot like email and allows cross-network interaction. As such, any services that use ActivityPub can interact with other instances. If Goucher hosts Mastodon, PixelFed, and PeerTube, for example, they can make these services interact with each other quite easily while allowing public access. In contrast, using traditional networks require a third-party cross-posting service like HootSuite or If This Then That (IFTTT) to work between social networks.

Alas, as with any social network, a concern for privacy arises. Naturally, we believe that social networks force us to think before we post. Professor Judith Donath from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society describes this behavior in her book, The Social Machine: “[…] people are free to act as they will, and there is little social pressure on them to conform. Privacy supports diversity; where people have protected private space, they have the freedom to be different from the public mainstream ideal” (Donath 304). This rings true for any social network, including Mastodon. It is also true that, because of this, we tend to think more about what we post. In the Psychnology Journal, Florencio Cabello, Marta Franco, and Alex Haché in 2013 discusses the restriction: “The uncertainty about what we post online also involves serious consequences for fundamental freedoms such as free speech and the right to information” (Cabello, Franco, and Hache 49). Thankfully, Rochko considered this idea; in Mastodon, users can change the visibility level of their content so that it can be targeted towards a certain audience or to the public. Goucher can make use of this to send content on Mastodon only to its users or to the public. This ability to control who sees the content can come handy for sharing information about an upcoming club meeting privately but sharing the next Common Hour publicly.

However, you may be asking the question: “Don’t we already have something like this with the GopherApp?” We do have the GopherApp as a means of communicating with each other in a social way for posting information inside of Goucher. However, from a software developer’s and user’s standpoint, the GopherApp doesn’t necessarily have the same advantages as something like Mastodon. The GopherApp doesn’t have a network that can be accessed via a web client or desktop app; if anyone wants to view the latest updates in the GopherApp, he/she must open the app on his/her phone to do it. Another issue arises from the app: GopherApp users can’t post the same kind of content as one can via Mastodon. Mastodon makes use of sharing links, uploading videos and images, and emoji, as well as providing spoiler tags to censor content to a degree; the GopherApp lacks some of this functionality, forcing its users to view a specific type of content. Furthermore, some additional features, such as club page edits, require the developers to make changes upon request. Another way to look at the GopherApp versus Mastodon is this: Mastodon can do what the GopherApp does and then some. We can further modify the web version of the Mastodon client to include Goucher links and branding, if we really wanted to. Besides using the stock web client Mastodon provides, Goucher can take advantage of some of the other clients designed for Mastodon in mind; there are already a few decent mobile apps for Mastodon that anyone can use to connect with their own accounts, and the rise of desktop clients like Tootle, Pinafore, and my recently-developed Hyperspace make Mastodon really accessible.

Besides the technical and social advantages of using Mastodon, becoming a part of the bigger fediverse has its long-term advantages. In a blog post I wrote last year, “Why I believe the fediverse is the future,” I briefly state some of my previous arguments. However, I also make an important observation about how decentralized social networks can help sustain cultures: “It feels more likely that federated, decentralized social networks put the emphasis on fostering relationships rather than control and censorship of data, which, in turn, helps sustain cultures.” Because of my aforementioned arguments, Goucher, should it move to Mastodon, would retain the ability to focus on its community and culture rather than the concerns of censorship, globalization, and/or centralization.

News outlets are already making us aware of these issues, too. Many have published articles about Facebook’s recent privacy issues, including the scandal regarding their enterprise Facebook Research app that Apple pulled off their store. Examples include Recode in their article titled “Apple says it’s banning Facebook’s research app that collects users’ personal information,” CNN with “Apple says Facebook’s controversial market research app violated its policies,” and even The Verge with “The fallout from Facebook’s controversial research app.” Given these circumstances, it’s easy to see how some are making the migration over to Mastodon and the fediverse.

I’d like to make myself clear on my stance on use of networks like Mastodon at Goucher: I am not saying that we should completely abandon networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. in favor of Mastodon. Most of the world still relies on those networks to connect with family and friends and will probably not migrate right away. Rather, I am proposing that we take a step in supporting an open community that isn’t entirely governed by a single company by hosting instances of Mastodon, PeerTube, PixelFed, etc. Though we cannot guarantee that everyone will migrate to this universe, or fediverse, in this case, we can at least show our support for projects like this. Mastodon currently has over a million users from different instances all over the globe, so it already has established itself in the social network space. However, it is up to us to decide whether we want to have social networks that work for us by us instead of the other way around.

BY MARQUIS KURT

Howdy! 👋 I'm Marquis Kurt. I'm a software developer and the digital news coordinator at The Quindecim.

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