Higher education starts trial with Mastodon

In March, institutes of higher education start to experiment with Mastodon as a Twitter alternative. The Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering already has an account.

The faculty of Industrial Design Engineering already has a Mastodon account. (Image editing: Marjolein van der Veldt)

Universities of The Netherlands (UNL) and Surf, the IT education and research association, are planning to build an environment in Mastodon in which students and staff at academic institutions in the Netherlands can share messages. Mastodon is a social media platform that resembles Twitter. The hope is that this platform remains free of threats from anonymous users and inciting hashtags.

Mastodon is made up of countless digital servers, which you can become a member of. This is a promising move as institutions have been concerned for a while about dependency on large tech companies such as Twitter in academia and education. More and more academics and institutions have personal accounts (in Dutch) on Mastodon.

Whether TU Delft will join the nationwide Surf trial is still not certain, says Roy Meijer. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Content Room at TU Delft, which takes care of the universities social media and website. “It depends what the trial entails and whether it is more than just a shared server. Will there be a moderator and support, for example? There will be greater clarity in a meeting on 1 February.”

Substantive discussions

Wladimir Mufty of Surf understands why Mastodon is gaining popularity. “Since Twitter was taken over by Tesla’s owner Elon Musk, people have started to think. In education and research there is interest in a good platform for substantive discussions without a business plan for users’ data.”

Mufty believes that Mastodon facilitates substantive discussions and free debate more easily. “Users have to make more of an effort on Mastodon. They need to find the servers themselves. The developers designed it this way intentionally.” 

Twitter is a collection point with an algorithm that tries to attract as many viewers as possible, Mufty says. “On our Mastodon server you will only be able to see what you look for yourself and what users in the world of research and education are talking about. This reduces the chance of polarisation.”

Trial at universities

From March onwards, students and staff at the relevant institutions can sign up for the Mastodon server trial using their institution’s account. Mufty: “We still need to discuss how we will ensure good behaviour. If we want to avoid disinformation being spread through this channel, there must be some form of moderation. Will it be done by experts? And will they do this voluntarily or will they be paid?”

At the moment, TU Delft does not yet have a Mastodon account, says Meijer. “I first want to clarify the purpose and the target group. Our target groups on Twitter are primarily academics and journalists, but we do not yet know what they will be for Mastodon. Furthermore, this seems to be a pivotal moment. You see that people are returning to Twitter. We are continuously weighing up whether it is desirable to use Mastodon. If you want a server, you also need to put time and money in moderating it and in server space.”

Last December, TU Delft ran a poll on its current social media channels to gauge interest in Mastodon. The responses were highly divided. On Twitter there was a tiny majority of 53.7% for a Mastodon account for TU Delft, and 46.3% were against.

Industrial Design Engineering

The Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE) is already using Mastodon. Jojanneke van den Bosch, Communications Advisor at IDE, set up the account and sees the advantages. “There are a lot of academics on Mastodon, and certainly on the server that we have chosen. You also see that people like and share less here, but give substantive answers to questions. We can learn from them. And there is a more positive atmosphere than on Twitter.”

Van den Bosch mostly views the IDE account as an experiment. She does not mind that there are only 50 followers compared to 2,000 on Twitter. “On a new network like Mastodon everyone starts at zero.”(HOP, PvT / Delta, RvdW)

Delta too has a Mastodon account. We can now be followed on

Science editor Rob van der Wal

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