Over the last couple weeks, I’ve seen hundreds of academics, nerds and everyday people I know open new accounts on Mastodon, in a phenomenon that has been called the great #TwitterMigration. Mastodon is an open-source microblogging platform similar in format to Twitter, but running on thousands of servers interconnected with each other in an open network called the “Fediverse” (referring to the fact that these services are “federated” to each other). Many researchers are disillusioned with the current state of Twitter, which was purchased recently by an erratic, bigoted oligarch, and are registering their disapproval by seeking out other places to share their science.
Personally, I am not “migrating” per se, as I have been using Mastodon for over 4 years now. I don’t intend to close my Twitter account, because I think the site will survive the current damage being done to it, though I’ve stopped posting for the time being, while they work through the process of learning the hard way that hate speech can never be allowed on the platform. I wanted to write about my experience using Mastodon to communicate science and why I think it has a lot of advantages over Twitter for certain use cases, precisely through the ways it does not seek to be a direct Twitter replacement.
Posting how I want
First of all, Mastodon gives me way more freedom to post the way I want. It is a true “micro-blog” in the way Twitter can’t be, since I get enough characters (500 at scicomm.xyz, and more on some servers!) to allow me to post a real paragraph. I have never found Twitter’s 180 characters to be enough space to really tell a satisfying story. Some people get around this by posting threads, but I also have never enjoyed writing threads! Other than that time I went on a giant clam fact rant. Mastodon also supports threads if you’re into that, and also allows you to set the visibility on your subsequent posts, so that your replies to yourself don’t spam everyone’s feed.
In my four years writing #clamfacts on Mastodon, I’ve written short facts. Long facts. Silly facts. Meaningful facts. I just have a lot more freedom with the format. Mastodon was also much faster to enable accessibility features like image descriptions than Twitter was. So the facts I shared are more accessible to disabled folks. While Twitter now includes alt-text, it still feels like Mastodon’s alt-text is a more mature feature. As with subtitles and other accessibility solutions, these features end up improving usability for everyone. In the case of alt-text, it gives me tons of space to describe scientific diagrams for anyone who might need additional context.
Mastodon recently added the ability to edit posts, which has been very advantageous for me, as a typo-prone individual. For Twitter, that feature is still locked behind a subscription. But even before editing was available on Mastodon, there was an option to “Delete and redraft”, which I used frequently to re-post when I had forgotten an image description, or to fix a typo. Mastodon has long provided far more options to control who can see a post and how, which is why I felt more incentive to be creative there than on Twitter.
A small pond by design: Engagement and sustained connection over reach
Twitter sometimes feels like an RSS feed with comments. Particularly for the more popular accounts or viral posts, while you can reply, there is such a torrent of feedback on the other end that it is difficult for them to respond to everyone. For my niche specialized clamposting, I am not interested in going viral. I just want to engage with people and learn from them as much as I share knowledge with them.
Mastodon is very well designed for this. Your posts get shared across the federated network, but only as much as other people “boost” it (analogous to retweeting) or reply to it. There are favorites (similar to the like button), but those are mostly just a direct message that someone liked a post, and have no impact on whether it spreads larger over the network. So the main people seeing my posts are my direct followers. And because Mastodon is a reverse chronological feed, with no opaque algorithm determining whether or not to show someone something, I am more confident that a bot moderator isn’t going to misidentify my clam content as NSFW and hide it by default from people’s feeds.
Culturally, Mastodon is driven by following people, and making your feed for yourself, rather than having posts from people you don’t follow pushed to you by a computer. If you follow someone back, you’re more likely to make a lasting connection through time, rather than trusting some algorithm to figure out who you enjoy to see. This leads to more lasting, meaningful connections in my experience. Truly powerful scicomm never happens in one direction; it relies on exchange.
I think that Mastodon will stay like this in the future, even as it continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Rather than one giant, sometimes dangerous ocean like Twitter, it’s more of a collection of small ponds. My reach is restricted to my followers and their followers, and sometimes their followers’ followers. That produces much more meaningful, sustained connections.
Hosted and moderated by scientists, for scientists
My home since the start has been Scicomm.xyz, a server run by a scientist in the UK going by the username Quokka. Recently he recruited another scientist and me to be moderators on the server, and we’re looking to add more. But since the start even before I was moderating myself, I’ve felt more secure sharing science when it’s hosted and moderated by another scientist. Even before Twitter laid off moderation staff en masse, and before the site announced scientific misinformation is now fair game, Twitter was not a place run by scientists, for scientists. If someone replied to me with misinformation about the coronavirus or climate change, my recourse against them was limited, since the moderation staff there are not exactly experienced peer reviewers. On Mastodon, there have always been data-conscious nerds running things. And now, there are a constellation of science–specific servers to choose from!
Science, including scicomm, is always more at home in an open-source environment
The last point I’ll bring up is that science always works better in an open-source environment. Mastodon is available free and open-source on Github for anyone to download, alter and run themselves. I prefer to use such open-source solutions in my own scientific work, from including Rstudio, QGIS, ImageJ, Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Ubuntu, Inkscape, Firefox/Thunderbird and more. So hosting my science communication on an open platform feels like preaching what I practice, as opposed to allowing a for-profit company to own my scientific content.
For all the reasons above, I have been extremely pleased to see the wave of scientists, technologists and other interested people join Mastodon over the last few weeks. I feel Twitter will still have a place in my science communication once it has worked through its current drama. But in the meantime, I look forward to sharing my clam facts with all the people I can, in my little pond on Mastodon.