Sunday 26 July 2020

Micro-blogging for scientists without nasties and surveillance

Start screen picture of Mastodon: A Mastodon playing with paper airplanes.

Two years ago I joined Mastodon to get to know a more diverse group of people here in Bonn. Almost two thousand messages later, I can say I really like it there and social networks like Mastodon are much more healthy for society as well. Together with Frank Sonntag we have recently set up a Mastodon server for publishing scientists. Let me explain how it works and why this system is better for the users and society.

Mastodon looks a lot like Twitter, i.e. it is a micro-blogging system, but many tweaks make it a much friendlier place where you can have meaningful conversations. One exemplary difference is that there are no quote tweets. Quoting rather than simply replying is often used by large accounts to bully small ones by pulling in many people into the "conversation" who disagree. I do miss quote tweets, they can also be used for good, to highlight what is interesting about a tweet or to explain something that the writer assumed their readers know, but your readers may not know. But quote tweets make the atmosphere more adversarial, less about understanding and talking with each other. Conflict leads to more engagement and more time on the social network, so Twitter and Facebook like it, but pitting groups against each other is not the public debate that makes humanity better.

The main difference under the hood is that the system is not controlled by one corporation. There is not one server, but many servers that seamlessly talk with each other, just like the email system. The communication protocol (ActivityPub) is a standard of the World Wide Web Consortium, just like HTML and HTTPS, which powers the web.

This means that you can chose the server and interface you like and still talk to others, while people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WordPress and Tumblr can only talk to other people in their silo. As they say the modern internet is a group of five websites, each consisting of screenshots from the other four. It is hard to leave these silos, it would cut you off from your friends. This is also why the system naturally evolves into a few major players. Their service is as bad as one would expect with the monopoly power this network effect gives them.

The Fediverse and its soial networks as icons

ActivityPub is not only used by Mastodon, but also by other micro-blogging social networks such as Pleroma, blogging networks such as, podcasting services such as FunkWhale and file hosting such as NextCloud. There is a version of Instagram (PixelFed) and of YouTube (PeerTube). With ActivityPub all these social networks can talk to each other. Where they do different things, the system is designed to degrade gracefully. FixelFed shows photos more beautifully, has collections and filters, but Mastodon gracefully shows the recent photos as a photo below a message. PeerTube shows one large video on a page, just like Twitter, Mastodon shows the newest videos in small below a message in the news feed. The full network is called the fediverse, a portmanteau of federation and universe.

Currently all these services are ad-free and tracking-free. The coding of the open source software is largely a labor of love, even if some coders are supported by micro-funding, for example Patreon or Liberapay. Most servers are maintained by people as hobby, some (like for email) by organization for their members, some larger ones again use Patreon or Liberapay, some are even coops.

This means that technology enthusiasts from the middle class are mostly behind these networks. That is better than a few large ad corporations, but still not as democratic as one would like for such an important part of our society.


Not only can these networks talk to each other, they also themselves consist of many different servers each maintained by another group, just as the email system. This means that moderation of the content is much better than on Twitter or Facebook. The owners of the servers want to create a functional community, while these communities are relatively small. So they can invest much more time per moderation decision than a commercial silo would. Also if the moderation fails, people will go somewhere else.

Individual moderation decisions only pertain one server and are thus less impactful and can consequently be more forceful. If you do not like the moderation, you can move to another server that fits your values better. If you are kicked off a server, you can go to another one and still talk to your friends. Facebook kicking someone off Facebook or Twitter kicking someone off Twitter is somewhat of a big deal and is thus only done in extreme cases, when someone already created a lot of damage to the social fabric, while others make the atmosphere toxic staying below the radar.

If someone is really annoying they may naturally be removed from many servers. Then it does become a problem for this person, but that only happens when many server administrator agree you are not welcome. So maybe that person is really not an enrichment for humanity.

The extreme example would be Nazis. Some Nazis were too extreme for Twitter and started their own micro-blogging network. Probably most Nazis know the name already, but I think it is a good policy not to help bad actors with PR. As this network was used to coordinate their violent and inhumane actions, Google and Apple have removed their apps from their app stores. I may like that outcome, but these corporations should not have that power. Next this network started using ActivityPub, so that they can use ActivityPub apps. The main Activity network does not like Nazis, so they all blocked this network.

I feel this is a good solution for society, everyone has their freedom of speech, but Nazis cannot harass decent people. They can tell each other pretty lies, where being responsible for killing more than 138 thousand Americans is patriotism, but 4 is treason, where the state brutalizing people expressing their 1st amendment rights is freedom, but wearing a mask not to risk the lives of others is tyranny. At least we do not have to listen to the insanity. (The police should naturally listen to stop crime.)

Many of the societal problems of Facebook and Co. would be much reduced if we would legislate that such large networks open up to competition by implementing open communication protocols like ActivityPub. Then they would be forced to deliver a good product to keep their customers. If they do not change many will flee the repulsive violent conspiracy surveilance hell they were only still part of to be able to talk to grandma.

Because there are nearly no Nazis and other unfriendly characters, the fediverse is very popular with groups they would otherwise harass and bully into silence. It is a colorful bunch. This illustrates that extending the right to free speech to the right to be amplified by others does not optimize the freedom of speech, but in reality excludes many voices.

A short encore: the coders of the ActivityPub apps also do not like Nazis. So they hard coded Nazi blocks into their apps. It is open source software, so the Nazis can remove this, but Google and Apple will not accept their apps. The latter is the societal problem, the coders are perfectly in their right not to want their work be used to destroy civilization.

Open Science

The fediverse looks a lot like the Open Science tool universe I am dreaming of. Many independent groups and servers that seamlessly communicate with each other. The Grassroots post-publication peer review system I am working on should be able to gather reviews from all the other review and endorsement systems. They and repositories should be able to display grassroots reviews.

The reviews could be aided by displaying information on retractions from the Retraction Watch database. I hope someone will build a service that also warns when a cited article is retracted. The review could show or link to open citations of the article and statistics checks, as well as plagiarism and figure tampering checks.

We could have systems that warn authors of new articles and manuscripts they may find interesting given their publication history and warn editors of manuscripts that fit to their journal. I recently made a longer list of useful integrations and services and put it on Zenodo.

These could all be independent services that work together via ActivityPub and APIs, but the legacy publishers are working on collaborative science pipelines that create network effects, to ensure you are forced to use the largest service where you colleagues are and cannot leave, just like Facebook, Google and Twitter.


A mastodon with a paperplane in its trunk.
I am explaining all this to illustrate that such a federated social network is much better for society and its users. I really like the atmosphere on Mastodon. You can have real conversations with interesting people, without lunatics jumping in between or groups being pitted against each other. If people hear less and less of me on Twitter, that is one of the reasons.

So I hope that this kind of network is the future and to help getting there we have started a Mastodon server for publishing scientists. "We" is me and former meteorologist Frank Sonntag who leads a small digital services company, AKM-services. So for him setting up a Mastodon server was easy.

Two years ago he had to drag me to Mastodon a bit, when we tried to set up a server just for the Earth Sciences. That did not work out. By now that I have learned to love Mastodon, it has gotten a lot bigger and more people are aware of the societal problems due to social media. So it is time for another try with a larger target audience, all scientists. We have called it: FediScience.

Mastodon is still quite small with about half a million active users; Twitter is 100 times bigger. My impression is that at least many climate scientists are on Twitter for science communication. For many leaving Twitter is not yet a realistic option, but FediScience could be a friendly place to talk to colleagues, nerd out about detailed science, while staying on Twitter for more comprehensible Tweets on the main findings.

Once we have a nice group together, we can together decide on the local rules. How we would like to moderate, who will do the moderation, with whom our server federates, who is welcome, how long the messages are, whether we want equations, ... In the end I hope the server will be run by an association with the users as members.

My network empire

My solution to Mastodon still being small was to stay on Twitter to talk about climate science, the political problems leading to the climate branch of the American culture war and anything that comes up on this blog: Variable Variability. As the goal of my Mastodon account in Bonn is to build a local network for a digital non-profit, there I talk about the open web, data privacy more, often write in German and only occasionally write about climate. I aim to use my new account at FediScience to talk about (open) science and to enjoy finally a captive audience that understands the statistics of variability. As administrator I will try to help people find their way in the fediverse.

Next to this the grassroots open review journals are on Mastodon, Twitter and Reddit. And I have inherited the Open Science Feed from Jon Tennant, which is on Mastodon, Twitter and Reddit. Both deserve to get an IndieWeb homepage and a newsletter, but all newsletters I know are full of trackers, suggestions for ethical ones are welcome. For even more fun, I also created a Twitter feed for the climate statistics blog Tamino and scientific skeptic Potholer54's YouTube channel. I should probably put them on Mastodon as well. That makes this blog my 12th social media channel. Pro-tip: with Firefox "containers" you can be logged in into multiple Mastodon, Twitter or Reddit accounts.

Every member of FediScience can invite their colleagues to join the network. Please do. If you share the link in public, please make it time limited.

Please let other scientists know about FediScience, whether by mail or via one of the social media silos. These are good Tweets to spread:



When you join Mastodon, the following glossary is helpful.

The Bird Site Twitter
Fediverse All federated social media sites together
Instance Sever running Mastodon
Toot Tweet
Boost Retweet
ActivityPub (AP) The main communication protocol in the fediverse
Content Warning (CW)A convenient way to give a heads up A mirror site of Twitter without tracking, popular for linking to in Mastodon