Experiments with Mastodon


The other Mastodon

For the past couple of months I’ve been experimenting with Mastodon, the social media service, not the metal band, although they are pretty good too – click on ‘play’ above and enjoy while you read this. For the non-technical, Mastodon looks and works kind of like Twitter, but without the Nazis, so it certainly doesn’t feel like Twitter. For the technical, it is an open-source federated micro-blogging social network, part of the fediverse.

To unpack that, open-source means that the Mastodon software is made freely available, anyone can read and contribute to it, and anyone can set up their own Mastodon server, or instance as they are known. That’s a very good thing. It removes the predatory capitalism of commercial social media companies which use extremely sophisticated psychological tricks to keep you addicted and get you to disclose as much personal information as possible to sell you adverts.

Federated means that Mastodon is decentralised, it’s not ‘one thing’, one server, with one owner; there are thousands of servers that run Mastodon, and everyone, no matter which Mastodon instance they have joined, can talk to everyone else (with some limitations – it is possible for instance administrators to completely block other instances, but this only tends to be used for instances that post illegal content). Each Mastodon instance has it’s own administrator, moderation team, and code of conduct, so there’s no faceless central point of control and authority haphazardly applying arcane rules.

So that’s what it is, but what’s it like? The TL;DR version – it’s good! I like it, and I think it has a lot of potential.

Having been built from the ground up to be open, free, and distributed, the culture and ethos is very different, better, more courteous, than what you get on Twitter and Facebook. A lot of lessons have been learned, and this shows in features such as the easy way you can control who sees something you post on Mastodon, a Toot, and the content warning feature which lets you mask out a post until people click on the content warning description. Even just having this features makes you think about the issue and whether or not something you are about to post could inadvertently cause someone distress. Trolls and unpleasant people do still exist on Mastodon of course, but there is something about the design and the culture which I think nudges people towards behaving better, and the bad behaviour I have seen on Mastodon has been of a vastly lower order of magnitude than you get on Twitter these days.

It’s not perfect of course, nothing is. To an extent, it feels like a Twitter refuge at the moment, and it needs to be more than that. If you use Mastodon on a desktop browser it looks a lot like TweetDeck with a four column layout, and mobile apps (I’ve been using Amaroq) look a lot like Twitter clones too. To be successful it needs to be more than the anti-Twitter; it needs a strong, positive identity of its own, and I’m not sure it quite has that yet. That said, I joined Twitter early when people flocked to it because it wasn’t Facebook, so if that’s what it takes to make Mastodon take off, so be it. The other thing it needs is network effect, people. There are around 2 million Mastodon users at the moment, a drop in the ocean, and when I first joined I found only three people I actually knew in meat-space. In comparison, Facebook has over 2 billion active users, and there are 330 million on Twitter.

As Mastodon is still relatively new (launched in 2016), there are still common features and functionality missing that you might expect to find. A particular grievance of mine is an easy way to search and embed animated GIFs, though I have been informed by some of my friends that this is a great relief to them. I’m trying hard not to be wounded by this. And I would love it if there was a better way to backup your account and switch between instances more freely. At present you can only export and import the list of people you follow, block or mute, and while you can export your content you can’t import it back into another instance.

This has all been very much my personal experience, and as it’s been almost entirely positive I’ll be sticking with it. In fact, Mastodon is now largely the only social space in which I actively engage. Looking at a bigger picture I would love to experiment with a cohort of students to use Mastodon for educational purposes in place of Twitter or Facebook to see what their experience is.

Now to throw some resources at you! This Lifehacker article goes into more detail than I have about what Mastodon is and how to get started. Some suggested instances to join are: Mastodon.social which is the flagship instance, run by the lead developer; Scholar.social which is good for general academically inclined people; and Humanities.one which looks good if your interest is specifically in the humanities. If you’re emigrating from Twitter you can use the Bridge tool to find anyone you follow on Twitter who has also jumped to Mastodon. This Github doc has a great curated list of apps and tools. Finally, to help find interesting accounts to follow, you can use this list of Awesome Mastodon accounts on Github, and the Trunk Wiki which groups accounts by topic. No category for learning technologists though. I may do something to address that.

And of course you should totally join Mastodon and follow me @sonya@scholar.social – or read my public profile here: https://scholar.social/@sonya.

Antisocial Media


Placebo’s ‘Too Many People’, anthem for the Facebook generation

I’ve started to notice myself becoming disenfranchised and disillusioned with social media, both in terms of how I interact with it and the effect it’s having on me personally, and what it’s doing to our society as a whole.

Like many in education I was an early adopter, and fan, of Twitter. It’s was the anti-Facebook at a time when I still wasn’t on Facebook. New, exciting, open, posts were deliberately short and sweet and you got them in a simple, clear chronological timeline. But as it got bigger and more popular it started filling with bots, fake accounts and became a haven for the extreme right due to the lax and variable application of its own rules and, of course, the disgraceful impunity given to Trump to spread his hatred and fearmongering. The gradual change to an algorithmic feed annoyed me, but I understand the reasons for that, as I do the logic behind the more recent increase to the character limit. I’m not sold on the ability to thread a series of Tweets though, and taken together all of these things have made the platform lose the brevity that was part of Twitter’s initial appeal. Seeing the word ‘thread’ proclaimed in a Tweet has come to fill me with dread as what could be an interesting discussion is shoehorned into a bunch of 280 character chunks which is harder to read and follow than a blog post or an article, which is what they should have been in the first place.

I did eventually succumb to Facebook as a matter of convenience, just like a quarter of the planet has. I never trusted Facebook though, and kept a tight rein on my privacy settings and was careful about what I posted and shared. Nevertheless, I came to like it well enough until recently when I’ve found myself quietly groaning at the banality of so much of what I’m seeing on my newsfeed. I can’t place when exactly this happened, but I suspect it’s something that has been triggered as the number of my ‘friends’, groups and pages has grown. Like Twitter, Facebook now has its own wider problems with bots, fake news, hate speech, and the inconsistent application of its rules. A recent post by one of Facebook’s senior managers did a quite excellent job of identifying its various problems, for which kudos, but then shamelessly places the burden of responsibility for change on its users, meaning it’s not going to actually do anything. To paraphrase, the solution to Facebook’s problems is to use Facebook more.

From Facebook to Instagram, which I joined more voluntarily and like for its ability to push posts into Twitter and Facebook. It is perhaps because it’s the most recent platform I’ve joined that it’s the one that least troubles me. LinkedIn I’ve been on for years as a matter of professional etiquette, but it’s a quagmire of corporate bullshit that I do my best to ignore. Similarly, Google enrolled me to Google+ whether I wanted to be on it or not, though fortunately no-one uses that. And finally, I do have my own YouTube channel (again, thanks Google!) which I use to back-up my dodgy gig vids more than anything else.

The bots, the spread of hate speech, and the fake news is one thing, but there is now an increasing body of research showing tangible harm being done to the psychological development of the generation growing up who’ve never not known a world without social media. I’ve read more than one piece linking social media and smartphone use with increasing incidence of depression in children and teenagers. Part of the problem is how these services and devices use push notifications to constantly update you about new content, something called digital distraction.

That’s definitely part of my problem. I hate all such notifications and pop-ups and like to clear them straight away. My inbox at work has nothing unread in it, and at any one time there’s likely only to be around a half dozen emails flagged for future work as they can’t be done immediately for whatever reason. This in contrast to a colleague who mocks me with his 6,968 unread emails (at the time of writing), though he claims it’s okay because only 356 of them are on the work account.

So, having identified the problem, what actions have I taken to address it? The big change I’ve made is to turn off notifications for all social media apps on my phone. I’ve had them off for LinkedIn pretty much since I joined, and only check it when I have something to update, which is a couple of times a year, or when the app gets updated (to clear the notification that the app has been updated… I know, I’m a lost cause). For Twitter and Facebook, I have left on the badge icon, otherwise, knowing myself, I would end up checking them to see if some such has been commented on or whatever. Finally, I’ve started being a bit more critical when I am scrolling and actively unfollowing and muting accounts that I don’t get something from.

The result of these changes is that I’m using these services far less often, checking them at times of my choosing, and when I need a distraction from whatever I’m doing, instead of going to one or other endless feed I’m choosing something more useful like Memrise or picking up a book for a little while.

Twitter has actually been the easiest to let go, and I’m now only accessing it once or twice a day. Facebook is a little more regular, but I’ve always gotten a lot more notifications there so the badge icon is pretty much always on. I’ve noticed an improvement in my battery life! And it would seem that I have upset the algorithms. Phantom notifications have become a thing – the icon is lit, but nothing is there when I check, and I’m getting many more irrelevant notifications trying to suck me back in. I feel like I’m seeing a lot more ads in Twitter, and have even had ‘recommended tweets’ appearing in the notifications tab itself. That, I found out how to turn off thankfully!

I haven’t talked about the possibility of quitting, because I haven’t seriously considered it. What I wanted to do was assert boundaries on their intrusion into my life and in so doing establish a healthier relationship, though I have plenty of friends who have quit or, especially for younger people, never joined in the first place. This is not a trend unique to my peer group either. For me, Twitter is too useful in my professional practice and, like LinkedIn, and indeed this blog, it’s something that’s just sort of expected of someone in my line of work. Facebook for its part has become my primary means of discovering gigs, and is still great for managing and organising events. So, in essence what I’ve done is reduce my use of these services to their core functionalities, what they’re good at and were initially built for – Facebook for event management and Twitter for news.

I’ll leave with one last article, this in the New York Times ostensibly about the Bitcoin bubble, but interesting for its insight into how Facebook became the de facto standard for establishing identity on the internet, and how the blockchain could provide a better, more democratic solution.

Festival of Learning and Teaching

serious_play

Last year we had a conference, this year it was a three day festival, run by our colleagues in Academic Development with support from ourselves in Web and Learning Technology Services. We are too cool to be involved in the main festival itself, so we had a fringe which included a Twitter treasure hunt, a stall where we enticed people in with fun stuff on the Oculus Rift and then hawked our services to them when they were captive, as well as providing live streaming of the keynotes from each day and the closing ceremony.

I was proud of the treasure hunt we put on, I thought it was very well thought out with some fun tasks for people which made them engage with our service, Tweet a selfie with a member of Academic Development for example (which we kept secret from them!), but there was little uptake unfortunately, which I think can be put down to the relatively low numbers and insularity of an internal conference. Our stall which was strategically positioned outside key sessions was more successful, attracting a decent number of people and even allowing me to connect with someone who has a project ripe for further development in virtual reality.

In spite of running various things in the background, I was still able to attend a number of sessions over the three days:

Lego Serious Play
Serious Play is an innovative and creative way to facilitate discussion about a typically difficult or abstract topic. In keeping with the theme of the conference, our discussion was focused around what it means to be a student. The foreground model shown in the photo above is a reflection on my experience as a student, thinking back to where I started from. I’m the skeleton, symbolising my lack of knowledge, and I’m leaning back slightly from an overwhelming fear of the daunting barriers in front of me – including a Stormtrooper boss level (my dissertation!) – before I can reach my goal of enlightenment and joining the educated and the successful.

Cultural Diversity and Effective Teaching
A discussion and workshop on the many meanings behind the word ‘internationalisation’, led by external guest Dr. Marita Grimwood, an educational developer. This was the keynote from day 2, and not a session I was originally attending, but due to a last minute room change we were unable to live stream this session, so I improvised a recording solution using my iMac instead of running the WaLTS stall. After the event I edited the recordings, inserted her slides as an overlay at appropriate points and then posted the resulting video to our streaming media server.

Showcasing Learning and Teaching in Arts and Design
A series of short ten minute sessions from various members of departmental staff who discussed approaches to learning and teaching in their area. This was a really interesting talk as it made me realise how many great art events are happening in and around the city of Sunderland, and how deeply involved the university is in almost all of it. A particular highlight was the session from the National Glass Centre who talked about the experience of an off campus event where students had to work with very limited resources and no access to their usual tools.

Spectral Visions Press: Engaging Students Through a ‘Real Work’ Environment
Spectral Visions is product of the university’s English and Creative Writing programmes which aims to give students real hands-on experience with all aspects of writing and publishing. In additional to the blog and a number of student-led projects, Spectral Visions Press has also now published two volumes of work which are available from Amazon – Grim Fairy Tales and The Collection: Volume 1.

Student-Generated Induction
The keynote session from day 3 was delivered by Nick Bowskill who has developed the Shared Thinking Consultancy, an off-shoot of his doctoral research at the University of Glasgow which was designed to improve student induction processes based on social psychology theory and practice.

Zapier Demonstration

Had a demonstration of Zapier today from a Pearson rep from their developers network. Zapier is a service that allows web services from different platforms to talk to each other, but in a very simple visual manner – no programming skills required. So, for example, you could set a new direct message alert from Twitter (the trigger) to send you an email to your Gmail account (the action). Triggers and actions can be chained together to create complex sets of actions. You could add a second part to my example which adds an entry to a Google Sheets spreadsheet from the Twitter DM as well for example. The possibilities are huge, and every modern web service you can probably think of is available on Zapier.

If this sounds like If This Then That that’s because it is pretty much the same, though Zapier claims to have more integrations available. Why Zapier then? Because Pearson have chosen Zapier to experiment with by linking up the web services which are available from LearningStudio to Zapier. You won’t find that advertised on Zapier though, as they are set to private at the moment, but we will be able to use them and can send them on to others. We could, for example, create a ‘Zap’ that sends an email whenever a new announcement is posted in a course site. We’re still waiting for full details of what the 17 triggers are, and there are no actions, so unfortunately this is going to be a one way thing; no possibility of setting a Facebook post to be pushed into a discussion board thread for example.

The Slow Death of Twitter?

There have been a few times recently when I’ve found myself conscious of the fact that I rarely use Twitter these days, often coupled with resolutions to tweet more. Then today when I wanted to tweet something about a problem I was having in El Capitan I fired up the app and this is what I got:

  • 1 Tweet
  • A ‘Suggested apps’ panel which filled most of the screen
  • The ‘While you were away…’ section with 5 tweets of dubious interest
  • 2 Tweets
  • The ‘Who to follow’ section with three bad suggestions
  • Then my actual Twitter feed proper.

Then I realised part of the reason why I’ve moved away from Twitter.

Coincidently I stumbled on this article in the Guardian about Twitter’s woes during my lunch break. It has given me an idea though, with a drastic trim of the accounts I’m following perhaps it could become more useful and relevant again.

SoDash Demonstration

Now that WaLTS are on Twitter, we found out on the grapevine that the University’s Marketing department had a tool called SoDash for collating all of our various accounts across different departments and social media outlets. We asked for a demonstration to see how it could be of use to us and this session was the result.

SoDash collates both incoming and outgoing social media activity on Twitter, FaceBook, Linkedin, YouTube and Instagram. The ability to include Google+ was mentioned too, but I didn’t see it in any of the dashboard and it’s dying anyway. SoDash has some really useful functionality such as the ability to tag and add notes to posts and people, create live activity dashboards, and most useful for us it can do wide-ranging searches for keywords to help catch posts which are for our attention but which don’t mention our handles directly. Many students won’t necessarily know ‘Web and Learning Technology Services’, or ‘UoS_WaLTS’, but they will tweet about SunSpace and My Sunderland problems which we may miss.

http://www.soda.sh/

WaLTS on Twitter

One pithy definition of madness is that it is the act of repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results. So it was that back in April I was asked to create a Twitter account for the team which, having done so, was promptly ignored and left to languish. To this day all six glorious tweets from that account were made by your humble author. Today, or rather spread over the past couple of days as a ‘bitty’ job, I have resurrected the old ‘LDS’* Twitter account and renamed, revamped and brought it back into use.

So, am I mad? My intention behind this is to have a more informal avenue of communication between the team and our customers, but to be a success it will require active engagement and relevant content. UoS_WaLTS has one thing going for it that NorthumbriaTEL didn’t: me, enthusiastic and not going anywhere anytime soon this time.

Another little job I’ve been doing for similar reasons of engagement is improving the announcements page on SunSpace, which was just dull black on white text, trying to make it look nice and keeping the content current so that it isn’t reduced to just annoying wallpaper which people scroll over to get to their courses, to which end I have also embedded a widget for our Twitter feed into the announcements for all users section.

* Learning Development Services, the old name for my team before merging with Web Services.

https://twitter.com/UoS_WaLTS

Twitter Account

Today I created a Twitter account for the team and styled the pages in line with the University’s new corporate blue and orange style. I got the ball rolling by posting some tweets, following some interesting TEL people and companies we have relationships with, and created a couple of widgets to post our tweets and a list into a Blackboard course site, just as a proof of concept really, to demonstrate that it can be done and looks pretty. In due course the idea is to have a public organisation for the team where we will have a blog and news, and a page for our Twitter feeds.

https://twitter.com/NorthumbriaTEL