Twitter vs. Mastodon: from platforms to protocols
The reputational crisis caused in Twitter by Elon Musk’s erratic management, as well as the social media platform’s consequent loss of users and advertisers, has raised concerns about the future of science communication on social networks.
Ignacio López-Goñi, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Navarra, wondered whether the recent upheavals at Twitter might undermine users’ confidence in the reliability or veracity of scientific information communicated via the platform, and Pablo Otero Tranchero, from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography, has also speculated on what science loses if Twitter fails.
Whether or not Mastodon can really provide a viable alternative to Twitter, the uncertain evolution of Twitter in recent months is leading to a profound reconsideration of how both networking between scientific communities and the dissemination of research results have been managed on social media up to now.
Fortunately, the richness and diversity of the digital ecosystem far transcend Twitter. Since Tim Berners-Lee released the software for the World Wide Web in 1991, the channels for personal expression and the sharing of knowledge, information, opinions, complaints, and criticism have only grown and multiplied.
Rethinking the communication of science on the internet
One of the most important consequences of the Twitter crisis is that it has allowed its users to reexamine how they use the internet. Many have discovered that since the commercial appropriation of the web and the proliferation of application markets, a large number of daily practices on the web are carried out within the orbit of large technological platforms managed with proprietary software.
The positive reception of Mastodon within the scientific community allows us to glimpse a future for academic networking and the dissemination of science, which will have more to do with protocols (open versus closed) than with platforms (free versus proprietary).
Several years before this crisis, Mike Masnick, editor of the Techdirt blog, had postulated –by way of a manifesto– that protocols and not platforms were the correct technological approach to protect freedom of expression, escaping from the economic and digital infrastructure created by big tech companies.
From platforms to protocols
The rise of Mastodon has demonstrated the potential of the open ActivityPub protocol for decentralized social media management. But other protocols also aspire to star in this revolution, such as the Matrix project or the AT protocol, promoted by Jack Dorsey (co-founder of Twitter) under the Bluesky brand, which proposes to decentralize the user experience of social networks, giving them back control over the management of their data.
At the same time, Dorsey is offering up to US $1 million a year to finance internet projects based on open protocols.
Among the competing protocols, special attention will have to be paid to the emergent Nostr project, which promises to overcome the limitations of Twitter and Mastodon to create a censorship-resistant social network that liberates the identities of the users of the domain names of the servers in a federated network.
In this process, which goes from platforms to protocols, it is foreseeable that the concern of scientists will accelerate transitions that will be slow and costly for universities to assume.
This is the reason why the expert in Information Management from Sheffield University Andy Tattersall points out: “Academics can easily get out of the Twitter square, but it will be much more difficult for their institutions.”
Taking care of brands and having a plan B
It is clear that the social capital accumulated on Twitter around personal and corporate brands cannot be squandered. But it is also obvious that personal and corporate brands are degrading in an environment that remains mired in chaos and whose future model remains a great unknown.
In this scenario, having a plan B is reasonable. But whatever the plan, it should not ignore the lessons learned about the internet model that the commercial platforms have built, nor the experiences that the scientific community is gaining by switching to open protocols to manage our presence and our work on the internet.
Jose Luis Orihuela is a professor, speaker and author, born in Argentina and living in Spain. He is a faculty member of the School of Communication, University of Navarra (Pamplona). Visiting scholar and speaker in 26 countries. Writer and blogger focused on the impact of the internet on media, communication and culture. His latest books are: Culturas digitales (2021), Los medios después de internet (2015), Mundo Twitter (2011), 80 claves sobre el futuro del periodismo (2011) and La revolución de los blogs (2006). Blogging since 2002 (ecuaderno.com), Tweeting since 2007 (@jlori) and Tooting since 2022 (mastodon.cloud/@jlori).