The digitally sovereign university and social media

Wladimir Mufty reflects on his organisation’s work to explore a higher education and research social media platform based on public values, and offers some mastodo’s and mastodon’ts.

Social media and science

Social media, i.e. the online networks and platforms where people meet, have become an important stage for business, media, the arts and culture and many other sectors, including our own: higher education and research.

Over the past 10 years, universities, students, researchers and faculty members have been able to share their work, results, concerns, digital high fives, inventions and events with many millions of people. Not to mention academic discussions and finding peers or interested people worldwide. However, until now, we did not have an easy, fast, user-friendly and well-organised worldwide "channel" or "platform" of our own.

Many do not hold only positive views of commercial social media platforms. There are multiple issues, including distorted self-image, privacy, fear of missing out and filtered, positive images that contrast with the harsh reality young people face in the offline world. Whether these are unintended excesses or structurally tied to a business model, this has not stopped us, as a sector, from remaining active on these platforms. A common assumption may be that we, as students, researchers or employees at a university, are less affected by these issues.

Then, in late 2022, came a turnaround on one of the largest social media platforms, Twitter. Since the change of ownership, many users no longer feel at home on this platform. They may only represent a small portion of the site’s 350+ million active users. However, it is notable that many users from our sector agitate against the tone of the platform and the arbitrary and untransparent way that messages and individuals are promoted. These developments clash with values such as humanity, justice and autonomy. Indeed, public values that are the core of universities.

As a society, and also within the higher education and research sector, we have become dependent on commercial platforms, despite being unable to control them. When things are going well it is all fun and games, and often cheap. But what do we do when an unpredictable owner starts to determine which web pages we can and cannot point to? Whether or not something is disinformation? What is or is not hate speech? And even if self-regulation works well for a time, what about the next owner?

What’s different about Mastodon?

An alternative microblogging platform quickly gained attention in late 2022: Mastodon. This platform has been around since 2016 and has certain similarities to Twitter. But it is also different in a number of ways.

In simple terms, Mastodon is a network of servers hosted by 12,000+ individuals and groups. Mastodon has the same advantages as Twitter in terms of interaction but has a very different (technological) setup that allows you to keep control of all data and is designed for privacy. The atmosphere and conversation on Mastodon are constructive, there is transparency about the code (software is completely Open Source), there are no hidden algorithms or dark patterns that attempt to constantly grab your attention or appeal to your emotions. Moreover, you are also liberated of advertisements, tracking or the unclear collecting and reselling of user data.

Piloting Mastodon for higher education and research

Just before Christmas 2022, the Dutch higher education and research organisations that make up the membership of my organisation, SURF, asked if it was possible to set up and offer a Mastodon environment through which students, researchers, employees and the corporate communication teams of the institutions could experiment. By asking SURF to focus on the technology, security, privacy and identity access management, institutions can focus entirely on usage, content and the adoption.

At SURF, we got straight to work in the first quarter and have already accomplished the following:

  • We have made a Mastodon environment - - available to all Dutch higher education and research institutions, which can freely participate without any prior obligations.
  • Students, researchers and employees of participating institutions can use Mastodon.
  • They can use their existing institutional user account. This allows them to make use of single sign-in without having to create credentials, but also to be active on the platform using a pseudonym, if that is what they prefer. In addition, it means that all users are traceable by their home institution and can be safely assumed to be active in education and research.
  • As of May 2023, 29 member institutions are participating in this initiative (including 10 of the 13 Dutch universities) and almost 500 users.
  • All the software (code) needed so that users that log in via their own institutional accounts has been created in Open Source by SURF.

So, is this going to change the world?

There is still a lot to figure out. The pilot will be a success when we have answers to a number of questions:

  • How does this affect security, privacy, usability, and the software development ecosystem?
  • As a sector, how do we collectively and inclusively set rules and how much time does moderation take, if necessary?
  • What is the demand?
  • What are the costs?

Moreover, is there a need for an even "bigger" Mastodon server with not only the Dutch but all European universities on it? And what would that mean in terms of technology, governance and autonomy? How does the Mastodon ecosystem evolve in the coming period, looking at users and costs of hosting?

This is my appeal to EUA members: we ourselves will have to be at the steering wheel of digital transformation. If vendors (open, closed, expensive, cheap, big tech, start-up, with a heart for education or a focus on shareholders) want to ride along in the passenger seat, then fine. But we must make decisions based on public values that we ourselves select, stand for and will need to guard.

As higher education and research institutions, we are perfectly placed - with brilliant minds, solidarity and the proven will - to shape our own sovereign futures, also for the digital transformation.

“Expert Voices” is an online platform featuring original commentary and analysis on the higher education and research sector in Europe. It offers EUA experts, members and partners the opportunity to share their expertise and perspectives in an interactive and flexible exchange on key topics in the field.

All views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of EUA.

Wladimir Mufty

Wladimir Mufty is Programme Manager for Public Values at SURF, a cooperative association of Dutch educational and research institutions.

Photo credit: Jelmer de Haas


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