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Mastodon versus Twitter - is this the research community's new digital town square?

Updated: Sep 8, 2023

When Elon Musk bought Twitter " to help humanity", did he envisage a mass migration to other communication channels? Does he even care? It's not like Twitter was not-for-profit before Elon Musk bought it, so why the sudden migration? Maybe it was the final push to kick people into gear and look at what alternatives are out there. Elon refers to Twitter as the 'digital town square', but are the new kids on the block actually the new place to be?

We have been monitoring Twitter in the research ecosystem, and clients have been reaching out, asking us to research and help them learn what the word on the street is. So we thought we would compile some recent research to help you to decide whether you need to include Mastodon or any other social channel in your strategy, as well as Twitter.

What even is Mastodon?

Social networking that's not for sale.
Your home feed should be filled with what matters to you most, not what a corporation thinks you should see. Radically different social media, back in the hands of the people.

SOURCE: Mastodon, 15 November 2022

By Dantheman9758 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
By Dantheman9758 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Mastodon takes its name inspiration from a large elephant-like extinct mammal of the Miocene to Pleistocene epochs (10-11,000 years ago) that belonged to the Mammutidae family. Living in herds, they roamed North and Central America and were predominately forest dwelling.

Mastodon logo

Mastodon is a software development non-profit from Germany founded in 2016 by Eugen Rochko and offers microblogging in an open source realm. There are currently four members in the core team - Eugen, Claire, Felix Hlatky and Dopartwo and 1.8m monthly active users (+385% as of 14 November 2022). Funded by sponsors, there are three packages to support Mastodon, with the lowest already sold out. You may notice the logo in blue, but this is being phased out as part of their new rebrand to purple. I haven't been able to yet find out why they named their business after an extinct mammal, especially one whose name (named by French naturalist Georges Cuvier in the early 19th century) translates to 'nipple tooth' because of their distinctly shaped small teeth!

Why Mastodon?

The four key positioning statements for Mastodon centre on being decentralized, open source, not for sale and interoperable. Not limited by commercial strategy with algorithms to show you what they think you want to digest, and no ads to 'waste your time', Mastodon shows you anyone you follow in chronological order on your feed to 'make your corner of the internet a little more like you'. Choose from any of the community servers (AKA instances) that best fit you as an individual (or host your own) and join Mastodon.

Businessinsider reports a 657% growth in downloads for Mastodon in the last 12 days (1-12 November 2022).

Whilst authors are using it to share and talk about their work, interestingly, a number of preprint bots have already been set up to follow:

A researcher's perspective

David Bruckner Twitter thread on Mastodon

David Brückner has a really interesting thread on Twitter from 30 October 2022, where he concludes the pros and cons of using Mastodon over Twitter, and practical tips for transitioning to Mastodon from Twitter for #ScienceTwitter:

  • open-source

  • decentralized: run on a federation of servers

  • no ads!

  • no attention-algorithm: the timeline is chronological!

  • 500 instead of 140 characters in each "toot"

  • key features that we need conserved: mentions, hashtags, retweets, likes

David mentions a 500-character limit, but that is the default. In fact, it can be reconfigured - QOTO.ORG, the STEM-based instance, allows around 65,000 characters. David also mentions in his Cons that you can't post videos - but you can post all types of content so for him, it might have been that with such an influx of users, some functionality was reduced temporarily or maybe the server David uses is restricted.

On 30 October 2022, David asked his Twitter community what they thought through a Twitter poll about Mastodon. Nearly 18% said they would stay on Twitter, over a quarter said they would try it, and a fifth said they would use both. At present, many publishers, libraries and intermediaries are keeping an eye on Mastodon, and if active usage and sign-ups continue, Mastodon should be considered as part of your strategy. We just need to be mindful of its longevity and future-proofing.

David has another well-engaged thread on Twitter listing his top five tips for transitioning over to Mastodon, including:

  1. Find your friends on #Mastodon

  2. Sync your Twitter and #Mastodon account

  3. Choosing servers

  4. Follow preprint bots

  5. Mobile apps

How long will, as David puts it, 'the science party' remain on Mastodon and how long will they continue using it? Users seem divided. I found a server I liked the sound of and have created my own profile. I'm finding it a little clunky to navigate but I'm sure once I get used to it, I'll be more active on it. I've always found Twitter too noisy but this seems like a much better alternative where I can actually see what people are posting that I am interested in following.

As with Scholar Social member Cameron Neylon, I wonder where these social channels sit with altmetrics providers - are they including these in their algorithms? You can certainly explore preprints and published content on Mastodon being shared with a researcher's community. How is this being translated into impact when the service is not yet set up - discover the GitHub thread.

With hashtags like #GoodbyeTwitter and #TwitterMigration is Twitter doomed? Probably not. But what about Twitter Blue ($8 a month) as a revenue stream for Twitter? How will this change the quality of content there? Being payment verified means you will be prioritized, and always at the top of comments and searches. Bots and trolls will get pushed further down in the feeds. Will this help? Time will tell.

Casey Fiesler, an information researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, studied the migration of online communities, comments to Science:

Things are changing faster than I thought even a week ago...there has to be both a compelling reason to leave, and an immediate viable alternative option

Mark McCaughrean, an astronomer at the European Space Agency, also comments to Science:

I’m seeing institutions now joining [Mastodon], observatories, institutes...

There is absolutely a shift to Mastodon, but let's take a quick look at what else is out there.

What are the alternatives to Twitter?

  1. Mastodon

  2. Bluesky (from the cofounder of Twitter, founded in 2019)

  3. Tumblr (recent sign ups include Deadpool's Ryan Reynolds and Wonder Woman's Lynda Carter)

  4. Tribel

  5. cohost

  6. Log off - literally as it says on the tin - just sign out and log off!

There are so many more to mention but others we know are worth a mention include Reddit - a favourite of mine to research trends and discussions amongst the research community and WeChat for connecting with Chinese researchers. What does this mean for sector-specific channels? Interesting to see how, Researcher App, and ResearchGate develop and diversify. What about ORCID - does this give them a new avenue to explore, and even help with the issue around duplicate accounts?

To include Mastodon in your strategy, or not to include?

Whilst we are in the early stages of trying out new social channels and working out what is right for us, Mastodon is worth keeping an eye on and including in your current strategy. Maybe we will see publishers and intermediaries sponsor services like Mastodon as part of their positioning strategy in an open environment. If anything, I hope these social channels recognize the importance of this industry and Github tickets around DOIs move up the list in terms of priority and are implemented.

Whether I'll be writing an article in a year's time - the demise of Twitter and the rise of Mastodon in the research ecosystem - who knows! Maybe someone will create a server on Mastodon (please....) for the academic publishing community so we ourselves have a place where we can chat and be friends...

Additional sources and reading:

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