Elon Musk has crazy timing.
He completed his purchase of Twitter right before the annual meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers, held in Dublin in November of this year.
Coincidence? I think not.
The Musk takeover of Twitter prompted a conversation at AOIR’s meeting in Dublin in early November: should AOIR start a Mastodon (specifically, a Hometown) instance? As someone who has been advocating for alternative social media for years, I was all about this. Internet researchers have been among the first to recognize the perils of corporate social media. But of course, AOIR members often deeply engage online, which means using those systems for their pleasures and professional opportunities.
As the old commercial says, there’s got to be a better way: a way to do social media but to do it on our terms. If the Musk takeover is the catalyst that pushes AOIR to adopt the fediverse, then as disturbing as things have gotten, at least there will be a positive outcome.
Spurred on by Aram Sinnreich, we started having informal discussions at AOIR’s 2022 meeting about starting up our own social media. What would it entail? How would we do it? The informal discussion involved some of my favorite AOIR folks: Nik John, Adrienne Massanari, Nick Couldry, Pat Aufderheide, and Esther Hammelburg (if I left anyone out, please let me know).
The conversation went well but we all knew there was a lot of work ahead. Last week, I met with the AOIR Executive Committee to continue the work. They’ve agreed to my posting about this process to this blog.
This post is meant to do two things. First, it documents how an academic association deliberates over whether and how to establish a presence on the fediverse. That ought to be useful for other organizations considering doing the same. I know there are quite a few.
Second, my hope is that by sharing AOIR’s deliberations, the rest of the fediverse can have some insight into our decision to proceed (should it come to that). Given that AOIR members engage in Internet Research, there may be trepidation about AOIR joining the fediverse – would AOIR come to the fedi to study it? To turn its users into objects of research?
Put another way, will AOIR be a good organizational citizen of the fediverse? Will it host a well-moderated instance? Will it respect fediverse cultures and norms? Please read on, fedifriends. I hope that it’s clear AOIR is going to do it right – otherwise, AOIR is not going to do it at all.
The meeting with AOIR Executive Committee went, in my view, extremely well, because they asked me the hardest questions. And for anyone starting a fediverse instance, I recommend asking similar questions. The questions included:
- Do we spin up our own cloud server, a la Digital Ocean, or do we seek out managed hosting?
- Do we plan for our total membership to be involved (this year, 1000 people) or for a fraction of them?
- Do we block instances up front, or do we do so after bad actors appear?
- Should we proceed if we can’t attract a pool of moderators?
- How do we deal with minor infractions of a code of conduct?
- How do we teach our members the ways of the fediverse – including the context-specific aspects of privacy and safety, especially in relation to research?
- What would AOIR members get out of this?
The good news is: the conversation ended up answering these questions in the right way. The Executive Committee is on the right track, in my view.
No, we shouldn’t just spin up a DO droplet. We need managed hosting, because we do not have the expertise nor time to manage the backend.
And our anticipated growth from a few dozen interested early adoptors to potentially our full 1000-person membership also suggests working with managed hosting, since managed hosts have the expertise to scale up resources.
Yes to blocking instances from the outset. Rather than reacting to fascist BS after it happens, block the fascists first. This is the advice I’m hearing from the experienced admins out there, and it sounds like AOIR is going to do it, too.
No, we should not proceed if we can’t recruit moderators. First of all, having no moderators would send the wrong signal to the rest of the fediverse, namely that we are not serious about this. Second, if we can’t recruit moderators from our membership, then perhaps the membership isn’t showing enough interest in AOIR having an instance.
Speaking of moderation, minor infractions should not be a basis to boot people. Discussion is the best course. (For me, this is the promise of the fediverse: moderation at a human scale. It’s not easy, but at least we’re not under the illusion that AI can moderate, or that one moderator to 100K members is a good ratio). This is social media, after all, and it’s a new system. People will make minor mistakes. We need to be ready to help them.
Related to the above, yes, we need to onboard our members. The fediverse isn’t Twitter. Moreover, AOIR is the group that produced Internet Research Ethics guides. And our ethics guides clearly state that Internet research needs to be very sensitive to context. The context of the fediverse, in my view, is that consent is ultra-important. That means lots of discussions with the membership about new research methods that take into account consent of the fediverse members. In my view, this will be the true struggle of an AOIR instance, and the way in which we address it will make it or break it. Because if we fail to respect the consent culture of the fediverse, our instance will be isolated.
Finally, what would AOIR members get out of it? I mean, if you ask me, life beyond corporate social media is totally worth it. But the EC also suggests that this would allow for more communication among the membership – more opportunities for grad students and early researchers to connect with the senior researchers at AOIR. More opportunities to collaborate. More opportunities to share our work and celebrate it. And more cat pictures. Definitely more cat pictures.
More to come
The conversation isn’t over, and that means more tough questions. But it’s a good sign that it’s the Executive Committee asking them.
I will post more as things develop.
Edit for Credit
I didn’t mention in the original post that Sarah T. Roberts, Aram, and I drafted a Code of Conduct for the Executive Committee ahead of the meeting. I want to acknowledge Sarah and Aram’s work on that document, too. I imagine we can share a draft of the COC with the fediverse, but for now we’re working on it in-house.