Mastodon, ActivityPub and better organizing academic labor
With the recent acquisition of microblogging giant, Twitter, by the apartheid-emerald-mine heir, over one million users have fled the platform and hundreds of thousands of people have started joining Mastodon. Being a tied into various online academic circles, I’ve been seeing discourse about moving the academic conversations that happen(ed) on Twitter to Mastodon, and how universities and scholarly groups can leverage the new platform. It’s neat that these conversations are happening, and people are moving away from corporate-owned walled gardens, but the proposed use-cases look so much to me like trying to squeeze a square peg through a round hole. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and I’m here to show you some different tools you can use.
This blog post is an extension to a short thread I made on Mastodon inspired by some of the more… interesting… ideas for how academics and academic institutions can use the platform.
In the first section of this post, I’m give give a lay-overview of how web-based communication works, how megacorporations have segemented the internet, how Mastodon and other federated social media platforms work, and how they’re different from current social media. In section 2, I discuss the reasons behind choosing specific internet publishing channels, including whether you really need two-way communication, whether you need to chase virality on a public platform, and the merits of creating more intentional communities. In the third section, I propose some solutions for leveraging these technologies especially for scholars conducting academic work, including maintaining an online presence, hosting conferences with equitable access in mind, and organizing communities of scholars to support the people excluded from and exploited by professional academia. Finally, I conclude with a summary and call to action. I encourage and challenge you to stick with it and learn a bit more about the affordances and restrictions of these different platforms.
1. ActivityPub and standard communication protocols
1a. A brief overview of web communication
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you at least use the internet, unless someone printed this out for you, I guess. I’m by no means an expert in computer science, so, if you are, please forgive any slight inaccuracies. However, if you’re also not an expert, then hopefully the way I frame this will make sense to you, since my descriptions won’t be laden with specialist jargon.
The underlying technologies that make the internet work involve standardizing communication between your device and all of the other devices connected together. These standard communication protocols ensure that we can understand each other, sort of like a common language. If the programs we use all employ the same standard protocols, then they can communicate information to each other without any problems. If these protocols freely available and/or open source, anybody can use them.
An example of this is Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). Your web browser (Firefox, Chrome, Edge, Safari) can use HTTP to read .HTML files, so, as long as a website is available in .HTML format, anybody can access it. Email, too, uses standard protocols, such as IMAP, POP3, and SMTP. If you’ve had to set up email accounts on your phone, you may have seen these in a dropdown menu and wondered what they were. Now you know. Standard protocols allow anybody with an internet connection to get to your website, or to send you an email.
Walled gardens, or closed platforms, on the other hand, often use proprietary software. They make money off of you being subscribed to them, so they want you to spend all your time in their walled garden, and have a financial incentive to prevent or otherwise attempt to inhibit communication with people outside that ecosystem. Disney owns the rights to the rides in their amusement parks, so you have to go to them and pay for the privilege of riding the Tower of Terror. Sure, other parks may have similar rides that use the same mechanics to give you the same feeling of free-falling, but no other theme park has the Tower of Terror. Likewise, you can’t simply join a facebook group by email–you need to make an account on facebook. When they were at the top of their game, facebook even restricted access to the pages that local businesses set up for themselves; if you wanted to check the local hardware store’s hours, you needed to sign into your facebook account. Twitter made you sign in if you wanted to read more than a handful of Tweets–which made it difficult to follow public figures or public services that jumped on the Twitter bandwagon.
Thanks to open communication protocols, anyone can buy a web domain (like edulingua.org), write up some html, and publish a website for anyone to view. You may need some technical know-how to set it up, but you could host a website from your personal computer at your desk. It’s easier, and therefore more accessible to people without these technical skills to pay for webhosting, and pay for a site-building service. This blog, for example, runs on WordPress, which is free, but I could pay WordPress for hosting and they’ll set everything up for me–all I would have to do is log onto my blog site and type my posts.
1b. The segmentation the internet
Since there’s a bit of a knowledge barrier to entry for publishing on the internet (let alone publicizing your site and building an audience), corporations saw a market for making it as easy as possible for the average person to establish a web presence. Platforms like Geocities turned building a personal website into a simple drag-and-drop operation. Free email services like AOL, Yahoo!, and Hotmail made it so you could send letters across the internet without having your own website. Internet Relay Chat and Instant Messaging services let you set up synchronous chat rooms. Forums let you organize around a hobby or particular community.
Friendster, Myspace, facebook, Google+, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, YouTube, Reddit, FourSquare, GoodReads. While some of these services are defunct or abandoned, none of them communicate(d) with each other. Sure, you can post a link to a YouTube video on your Twitter, but if anyone replies to your Tweet, the reply stays on Twitter. It doesn’t go to YouTube. It doesn’t go to the person who uploaded the video (unless that person was also you). The corporations behind these services have intentionally created their walled gardens to keep people engaging with the content on their terms. If you want to post a video to YouTube, Google needs to approve its content. If you want to post a picture to Instagram, you need to abide by Meta’s terms of service. Your content lives on their physical hardware, and you sign away certain rights to it when you make an account.
After all, it costs money to host a website, especially if you’re going to be publishing large files like pictures and videos. That’s where ads come in. Social networking sites can only work as viable commercial enterprises (and effective public communication tools, secondarily) if there’s a critical mass of people on it–that’s why Google+ failed as a network: not enough people actively used the platform for it to become profitable. They need to attract as many people as possible, so they allow you to sign up for $0, but you sign away your data to them in their terms of service so they can attract advertisers. Marketing companies will pay top dollar to make sure their advertisements are seen by the exact demographic who buys the product they represent. Alphabet (Google, YouTube), Meta (facebook, instagram), Amazon (Twitch) and their ilk are in the business of charging advertisers to target you, based on the information you give them. Did you ever see those ads for hyper-specific t-shirts? That was one of the more benign things they did with your personal data.
And in order to ensure you stay on their platform, so they can mine your data and sell you ads, these companies are trying to lock you into their ecosystem in order to serve you advertisements. People were posting pictures to Instagram instead of facebook, so facebook bought Instagram. Everyone was uploading videos to YouTube instead of Google Video, so Google bought YouTube. TikTok exploded in popularity with short videos, so now there’s Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. The more you engage with a company’s walled garden platform, the more time they have to learn your scrolling habits. They take your scrolling habits, along with everyone else’s, and create an algorithm that serves you content exclusively on their platform, to make their site/app as addictive as possible–so you stay there longer and view more ads, to make them more money.
If you’re not insulted enough by having megacorps trick you into watching ads, or sell your data to political organizations who abuse human psychology to influence elections, also note that nefarious actors will take advantage of these algorithms in order to push hateful views. And since controversial content draws user engagement (and thus more ad revenue), these social media corporations will wring their hands to avoid banning, blocking, or deplatforming these bad actors. What remains are platforms which not only host, but actively promote through their algorithms: racists, misogynists, transphobes, and any other kind of bigots and their hate speech.
And hate speech cannot be tolerated. If a community tolerates hate speech and oppression against vulnerable and marginalized sub-sets of the population, then the safety of the entire community is at risk. Oppressors who invade a community and call for violence aren’t looking to build a tolerant society. They’re not looking for an equal society. And they certainly aren’t representing their ideas in good faith or open to being challenged. Maybe the corporations that are willing to platform and boost oppressive, intolerant, hateful speech to drive engagement aren’t necessarily doing so because they agree with the viewpoints. They’re doing it because their entire business model revolves around monopolizing your attention. Is that any better? They are taking advantage of your psychology, and your desire to connect with your friends, family, co-workers, and communities. You are the product.
Once these social media networks trapped hundreds of thousands, if not millions of active daily users, into hour-long scrolling cycles, other corporations started making accounts on these platforms, in order to market their products to you, directly in your newsfeed, right after your cousin’s birth announcement. Sure, PepsiCo has a website. But the average person doesn’t visit it daily–why would they? All a corporation has to do is hire some intern to write some Tweets, or a marketing firm to draft some ads for facebook. Anyone who “liked” Pepsi on facebook suddenly started seeing ads in their timelines–without needing to pay for ad space or having the courtesy of being invited into the room. Imagine you were having a conversation with your friend at the park, and a Pepsi representative rudely interrupted your conversation to try to sell you a bottle of soda. Would you tolerate that? This became par for the course in corporate social media; it is expected of large corporations to hire social media teams to manage their online brands. And then they pretend to feud with the social media accounts of competitors to drive business. For additional reading on how corporations have been building “brands” rather than letting their products speak for themselves, I highly recommend Naomi Klein’s No Logo. It predates the social media boom, but the advertising mechanisms are more or less the same.
Your conversation at the park with your friend doesn’t need to include Pepsi. I encourage you to fight back against corporate efforts to inject themselves into your daily lives. Billboards are commonplace now, but our streets don’t have to have them. Cable television and streaming services don’t have to have commercial breaks that rival the runtime of the actual shows you’re watching, especially if you’re paying subscription fees. Your computer’s operating system doesn’t need ads in the menus. You don’t need to let companies get away with forcing you to pay attention to them. Both free and paid, legitimate services exist that don’t rely on scraping your personal data and shoving ads down your throat. You can use LibreOffice (or LaTeX) to write documents, and create spreadsheets or presentations. You can install Linux on your computer instead of staying in the Microsoft or Apple ecosystems. You can use Blender and GIMP instead of paying hefty subscription fees to Adobe just to edit a picture. I even pay for email so my commuications and data can be encrypted and aren’t being automatically scanned to sell me ads for the stuff I just emailed my friend about.
Maybe some of these services don’t look so shiny, but they have all the same features, give you more control over your information, and don’t cost you much, if anything.
1c. Mastodon and ActivityPub
Alright, with the scene set, we can finally get to Mastodon microblogging.
Not everything is a walled garden, and not everything has to be. You can choose any web browser and visit any website. You can choose any email host and send an email to anyone. You can use your Samsung phone on AT&T to send SMS to an iPhone on T-Mobile. While facebook and Twitter became household names, and quasi-synonymous with the concept of social media, hundreds (possibly thousands) of programmers worked to develop various open social media protocols that let you build a profile on one website that can talk to your friend on another website.
Mastodon uses a protocol called ActivityPub, which lets you interact and engage with any content published using ActivityPub. To analogize with languages: facebook is speaking Catalan, Twitter is speaking Quechua, YouTube is speaking Basque, and Mastodon is speaking Swahili. If you take a screenshot of a Tweet and post it to facebook, you’re using the picture format as a sort of translation method, and you can have a conversation about it on facebook (“in Catalan”), but the conversation on facebook and the conversation on the original Tweet on Twitter are happening in different places, with different people, in different languages. With ActivityPub, when you publish something (“in Swahili”), it becomes accessible via all of the other ActivityPub services, since they’re all “speaking Swahili”. You may have different accounts on Twitter, facebook, instagram, YouTube, and Reddit, but if you want to share something from one platform to the other, you need to “translate” it first as a picture, or as a link (another open communication protocol). But since corporate social media giants want you in their walled gardens, those links redirect you to sign in or create an account if you want to even view the content, let alone comment on it.
Let’s say you own a small business, and you want to build your online presence to attract more customers. You build a website, like “my-business.com”, and get Google to manage your email so you’re not inundated with spam. On your website, you list your hours, your services, your location, and your contact information. Google and Apple are “kind” enough to scrape your website and automatically put that information on their Maps services for you. A few years ago, you might have sent out an email newsletter, but instead you create a facebook page to alert people of deals you’re running in the store. You post pictures of your merchandise on Instagram every day, record videos for TikTok that have your store name in the background, and Tweet using specific hashtags for your products and location. Maybe you spring for some “promoted” tweets or facebook posts. You need to tap into every possible method of communication, because each one represents a new market of potential customers in a segmented internet.
Because there are so many different platforms, and they all do different things, you need to be on all of them. It’s a ton of time, labor, and money, and your social media efforts can be thwarted by the algorithm–the ever-changing, unknown computation that decides what content people need to see so they stay on the app. If you want to be on Instagram, you need to be posting pictures. If you want to be on Twitter, you’re limited to 280 characters per post. The constraints of each medium will necessarily limit the way you engage with your audience. But if all of these services are networked together and talking to each other, then you only need to use the right tool for the job. Enter: the fediverse.
This toot by @firstname.lastname@example.org describes the fediverse and outlines several of the projects that all speak the same language. The gist is: given the underlying protocol, ActivityPub, anybody with an account on one service, such as Mastodon, can follow an account on another service, like PeerTube. So from your microblogging account, you can receive updates from your favorite video content creator, and you can even leave comments on their videos from your microblogging app. Even though the point of the PeerTube service is primarily to post videos, and the point of Mastodon is to post short snippets of text, being connected via the fediverse allows people on both platforms to communicate with each other.
If you make your income by publishing content (videos, articles, etc.) to an internet-based audience, then using ActivityPub simplifies your workflow. To return to the small, brick-and-mortar business example above: instead of creating accounts on all of these different services, all you need to do is make sure your website connects to the fediverse (even your WordPress blog), so people can follow you for updates and directly engage with you from anywhere on the internet. Just as anyone with a phone can call your business line, and anyone with an email can connect to your inbox, you can use ActivityPub to build your website as a truly public-facing social media page. Just like how you don’t have to pick up your business phone or let people into your store after hours, ActivityPub lets you set your own terms for engaging with people on the internet.
1d. Federation and Privacy
The “federated” part of the protocol is what connects your web presence to other communities, but the publishing and privacy features take control back from the megacorporations’ algorithms. You only see what you want to see, and the wider internet only sees what you want to make public. Let’s compare Mastodon with Twitter with how you can connect to other people:
- You can directly follow people whose usernames you know. You get everything they tweet delivered to your newsfeed.
- You can use #hashtags to indicate that your tweets are contributing to a wider, public discussion.
- You can follow a #hashtag to see what other people are saying in that public discussion.
- If you tweet from a public account, anyone on the internet can see all of your tweets if they have your username or are following a hashtag you use.
- If you tweet from a private account, only people whom you approve to follow you can see any of your tweets.
- You can also send direct messages to other users, as long as you have their username. These are only visible to the person you sent the message to.
- There is no way to tweet publicly without sending your message to everyone in the public feed.
- You can directly follow people whose usernames you know. You get everything they toot delivered to your home timeline.
- You can use #hashtags to indicate that your toots are contributing to a wider, public discussion.
- You can follow a #hashtag to see what other people are saying in that public discussion.
- You can choose to make any individual toot public , so anyone on the internet can see them if they have your username or are following a hashtag you used.
- You can choose to make any individual toot followers only, so only people you allow to follow you can see what you posted.
- You can send direct messages to other users, as long as you have their username. These are visibile only to anyone who is mentioned in the toot.
- You can choose to make any individual toot unlisted, so anyone can see it, and your followers will see it in their home timeline, but it doesn’t get sent to the local or federated timelines.
The major difference here is the prviacy settings for each publication, and the additional layer of decentralization. On Twitter, if you’re not sending a direct message (or tweeting from a private account), anyone and everyone can see your tweets, and so anything you say has the potential to “go viral”. That’s all well and good if you’re trying to peddle your ideas in a public market and you want to shout loud enough to get everyone’s attention. But the biggest drawback to this kind of communication is complete decontextualization from conversation. Since the algorithm can pick up any tweet from any public account and boost its visibility, any random Twitter user can stumble upon a conversation and interject–even if the original tweet was only intended to reach a small audience. This built-in publicity and the potential for virality is precisely why a capitalist organization or egotistical influencer loves Twitter: you can force yourself into the conversation and push your viewpoint.
What if your goal is to communicate with a particular community? The square-peg-round-hole solution for Twitter is to use hashtags to try to organize around a discussion topic. But even then, you’re at the behest of the algorithm if you want your hashtag to get enough visibility to attract the audience you want to connect with. On a platform like Mastodon, where each individual instance is a community, you have complete control to:
- Send messages privately to another person
- Send messages privately to a specific, small group of people
- Post messages privately to everyone who follows you
- Post messages publicly for anyone to see, but only to people who follow you
- Post messages publicly to your local community (your instance), to federate out to other communities
While Twitter is its own walled community, on Mastodon you can also follow people from other communities (i.e., instances living on other websites). When someone from your community follows someone from another community, your two instances federate. This is where the different timelines come in. So far, I’ve only been talking about privacy of what you post, but equally important is the prviacy of what you choose to see. Not only are there no ads to invade your home timeline, which only populates with the content posted from people you follow, but you can also choose to view the local timeline instead of the federated timeline. (Note: although the web interface lets you do this without issue, selecting to view your local timeline is not a feature on the “official” mastodon mobile app. On Android, I use Tusky.)
As an example, I’m on the scholar.social Mastodon instance, which hosts people with academic interests and discussions relevant to science, teaching, research, and academia (and, of course, all of our rich private lives). My home timline shows all the accounts I follow from other Mastodon instances, as well as those I follow on other ActivityPub services. My local timeline only shows me the public toots from people in the scholar.social community. And my federated timeline shows all of the most recent public toots from anybody on any Mastodon instance that federates with scholar.social. To analogize with physical spaces: the home timeline is my invite-only dinner party, the local timeline is the town fair, and the federated timeline is the airport bar.
Additionally, everything is all in reverse-chronological order; there’s no algorithm telling you want to engage with. Everything is purely grassroots-social: if you like something your friend shared, you can share it with your other friends. No “controversial” content gets artificially boosted to keep you in the ecosystem. No ads are burying your posts. The platform doesn’t have ads, and webhosting for a small community is cheap enough that many instance admins just pay out of pocket, or take donations to keep the servers running. This cuts off the power that monied interests exert over massive, walled-garden platforms. It’s a return to the internet as an unrestricted communication medium. If you can afford a pen, paper, an envelope, and a stamp, you can freely send a letter to anyone whose address you have; the post office doesn’t decide to hold onto it for a week until you’ve seen enough ads, and you’re also allowed to hire private courier services to deliver the same letter if you so desire.
2. Using the right tools for academia
To synthesize the relevant points from the previous section:
- Open web-based communication protocols exist that serve different functions
- Mega-corporate walled gardens mine your data to sell you ads, and exploit your psychology to get you addicted to their platform
- Libre (open, free, and gratis) social media platforms exist and allow us to interact with others on our terms
Recent conversations between academics who recently moved from Twitter over to Mastodon have come from a limited perspective of Twitter-as-a-medium. I’ve seen people suggest university-run Mastodon instances (which would give university administrators unilateral moderation control over all discourse conducted by anyone with an account on that instance). There are bot accounts set up to act as a “group”, but really they just automatically boost any toot that mentions the bot account by name. There was a mad dash to establish the “correct” hashtags around which to center discussion for particular subfields, like pioneers racing to plant their flags and stake their claims during a land rush. These implementations treat the microblogging platform as its own, closed ecosystem. In a walled garden like Twitter, the only way to interact with other people on Twitter was to (1) have a Twitter microblogging account and (2) try to take advantage of the blackbox alorithms that automatically curated and boosted content to literally every other Twitter account.
This conceptualization of Twitter-as-a-medium misses the “federated” and “protocol” points of the ActivityPub technology behind Mastodon, and it presupposes a need to use microblogging for content publishing.
2a. One-way vs Two-way communication
Social media is great for two-way communication, but not everything that’s published needs to take place as a conversation. Take a personal website for example. I have an “about” page that I update infrequently. I keep static information on that part of my site, accessible to anyone who wants to go look at it, but it’s not really a topic for discussion. I also have a public-facing blog feed that people can subscribe to if they want to receive updates when I post content. I don’t want to manage other peoples’ accounts on my own website, so I don’t use the native WordPress functions for subscribing and leaving comments. WordPress natively uses RSS, a two-decade old communication protocol, that periodically checks for updated information from a website and pushes it to an RSS reader, so anyone who so desires can automatically receive my new blog posts without giving away personal data (even if it’s just their email and IP addresses) to create an account on a random website. This is the underlying technology behind podcasts as well–that’s why you can follow my Ancient Problems, Modern Solutions podcast from any podcast app you have, including Apple Podcast and Spotify, even though I don’t pay either service to host my data. And you don’t need to have an account with any of these services to get updates from your favorite podcasts.
The difference between RSS and social media is that the former is intended to be a one-way means of communication. You can follow my blog or my podcast via RSS, and you get my updates, but I don’t see anything you have to say about it. If I really wanted to take advantage of corporate social media to “establish a presence” (i.e., guerilla-advertise on their platform and enable people in those walled gardens to follow my content), I would have to manually publish Tweets or facebook posts that link back to my podcast or blog–or start using their services to host my content. And that’s what online content creators are doing to build their followings: managing various social media accounts in order to reach new audiences who can click “follow” to get updates delivered right to their Twitter or facebook newsfeed. When you’re already spending all day infinite-scrolling on an app, you might as well use it to get updates from the various content creators whose work you enjoy. But are you commenting on those “I just uploaded a new video!” posts? Or using it as a reminder to check YouTube, even though you can just put the channel URL into your RSS reader and skip the “recommended videos” and ads?
For my academic work, I simply use an RSS reader to collect recent publications from various journals and automatically receive them in a curated feed that I set up. I personally use Thunderbird to manage my email, calendar, to-do lists, and RSS feeds, so I open up one program on my computer and have an entire work-productivity suite all in one place. And a side-note: when people send me event/meeting invites via Google Calendar (or Outlook, but most of my contacts are at institutions drinking the Google Kool-aid), I click one button to accept the event, and it gets loaded into my calendar. This is all thanks to the standard file format, iCalendar.
If you’re representing an academic organization, you don’t need to set up a Twitter or Mastodon bot to send out the table of contents for your latest edition, or notifications for calls for papers, or job postings, because the expectation is that it’s a one-way flow of information. LinguistList is a great example of how to use RSS to send out all this kind of information, and I get several of their feeds direct to Thunderbird.
What if you want to share a particular job posting or conference announcement with your own circles, if it was sent out by another organization as RSS? Well, ActivityPub supports RSS. You can follow an RSS feed via, e.g., your Friendica account, and not only receive these feeds in your ActivityPub stream, but you can then share it with your followers with the click of a button.
What if you do want to encourage two-way communication, or automatically send out all of your journal announcements, calls for papers, etc. from your organization straight to social media? You can host an ActivityPub service on your organization’s website. Currently, I’m running WordPress, but have an extension so you can follow my blog feed via ActivityPub (@email@example.com). If you wanted, you could set up a Friendica page (or better yet, a Hubzilla channel) for your organization and have it work like facebook’s old Groups pages. The benefits to this would include:
- Your audience not needing a facebook account to view your content
- The automatic publishing of your content to anyone on any ActivityPub service
- Your audience can engage with and share your content via ActivityPub
- Your website can host an open, global discussion of your content
- You don’t need the infrastructure to host others’ accounts on your website, since their accounts live on other servers
And ActivityPub supports publishing as RSS as well, which means someone can use a traditional RSS reader if they don’t want to follow your page via an ActivityPub platform.
Just by choosing the right tool for the job of publishing your content, you save yourself the extra labor of converting it into a shareable format in different walled gardens. Let’s say you wrote an article for a journal, and wanted to share it via traditional social media. You would probably share a link to where the article is hosted, or maybe a .pdf file. You wouldn’t copy/paste the whole article and share it as a facebook post. You wouldn’t rewrite it 280 characters at a time in an ungodly-long Tweet thread. You wouldn’t read it out loud to record a video or a podcast. But if the journal uses an open social media protocol like ActivityPub, all you have to do is click “share” and it propagates to all of your followers, whether their account is on Mastodon, Friendica, Hubzilla–or whether they just want to receive it as RSS. Your audience gets to choose how they follow you for updates, and they don’t need a dozen different social accounts to make sure they’re getting all the information they want.
2b. Virality as the primary means of information sharing
Since there’s no algorithm choosing what content gets pushed to everyone, even if it’s published on public feeds, no one individual can exploit the algorithm for astroturfing. So state-backed actors or agents hired by political machines would have a harder time at co-opting a centralized social network to do their propagandizing. Of course, they can still do this the old-fashioned way by buying up different nodes in the network, the way the Sinclair group exploits broadcast television.
But would federated social media networks limit the spread of actual grassroots social movements, like the Arab Spring or #BlackLivesMatter? I argue not. Movements for social change have happened before corporate social media, through whatever discursive means were available to spread information, whether that be the spoken word or agitative newspapers and pamphlets. The conversations will happen, and can still travel from community to community, whether you hire a crier to literally shout your information at people in a public space, publish and ship a physical newspaper, or link two digital communication networks together using a standard protocol. Ideas will continue to travel on their own merit, and people will still leverage the power afforded by their capital to disseminate bad or misguided ideas.
Social media allows people to “share” posts across their own personal and professional networks with the click of a button, instead of having to copy/paste, forward emails, etc., leading to quicker dissemination of information and broader access. So corporate social media and their algoirthms promise you unlimited access to their massive user bases to spread your ideas and products. But you don’t need to go viral across the entire internet in order to publish via the internet as a career. With access to a wider audience, grassroots-level, pay-what-you-can funding streams can attract the “1000 true fans” (or “100 true fans“) needed to fund an individual creator in the current internet economy.
2c. Intentional communities
As a researcher or an educator, would you rather shout your ideas out in public to no one in particular, or would you rather attract an interested audience who intends to engage with you in good faith?
When I prepare a research presentation, I do it with a particular audience in mind, and start from a place of shared common ground when I establish my argumentation. When I’m teaching, I start from where my students are at, which I’ve been able to gauge based on previous interactions with them. Learning happens in the zone between what a person can do without help and what a person cannot do, so it’s our job to figure out what our audience knows, what they don’t know, and how to connect them from A to B.
What would you do differently if you were to present your work to different audiences, such as: (1) a conference in your exact sub-discipline of your field, (2) a general conference that attracts people from other sub-disciplines in your field, (3) an crossdisciplinary audience of non-specialists whose work relates to yours, (4) a class of undergraduate students learning about your field, and (5) the general public? If you gave the exact same presentation to each group, you wouldn’t be engaging with your audience at their level, and therefore they might misinterpret what you’re saying, miss important nuances, or not even be able to understand what you’re saying. Of course you would give different presentations if you were planning to present to different audiences, aiming for their level of understanding. This is the point of Wired’s Explain in 5 levels of difficulty YouTube series.
If you publish a book or an article, you want to make sure you’re reaching your intended audience. That’s why professional research is published in scientific journals, and not in the New York Times in the same format. A specific scientific publisher promises to you, as the author, that they will disseminate your work to the appropriate circles. The publisher has built connections with various libraries, universities, and scholarly organizations, so when they announce a list of new publications, the interested parties in your intended audience will certainly know about it. Publishing houses, libraires, universities, and scholarly organizations are all just groups of people who share a common interest in research. If you had all the connections to your target audience, would you choose to self-publish, or would you still rely on established presses because they have institutional prestige?
A good academic journal pushes out full, new articles as RSS for free from their official website, so anybody who subscribes to their RSS feed can get a journal article delivered straight to their electronic door as soon as it passes peer review. The overhead for storing and distributing digital content (especially text) is far less than the overhead for entire physical printing and shipping operations. A century ago, maybe you would have relied on a physical mailer alerting you of a physical print that you would have to go to a research library or university to access. And, of course, you needed to be a member of those communities. But with digital distribution mechanisms, those communities can be global, and don’t have to be limited to individuals privileged by their generational wealth or their geographic location.
3. Specific academic use-cases
I’ve been talking in generalities so far, so this next section is organized by academic activity, and gives a description of how we can better intentionally organize and disseminate information using current open digital tools.
3a. Your academic profile and online presence
You probably have several “professional” social media accounts on the internet. There’s Academia.edu and LinkedIn, maybe you have a professional Twitter, or you might be in some facebook groups for your discipline, you possibly maintain your own website, and there’s an official profile page for you on your home institution’s website. Then there’s your CV of course, which always needs maintaining and updating, then uploading to these various digital spaces. You probably have an ORCiD, too, and an Open Science account. Google may have automatically generated a page for you on GoogleScholar. If you jumped off Twitter to join Mastodon, you now have yet another page to post to. And if you’re one of those academics who’s really into public engagement, you may even have your own YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok accounts. Even if you only use a couple of these services, I imagine you dread ever having to update them all, and you probably strategically ignore certain services–like LinkedIn if you’re not actively looking for a job–because you just don’t have the time to be a productive scholar and maintain an up-to-date professional online presence.
I’ve already outlined in previous sections how ActivityPub can streamline your online publishing, but the protocol that really shines here is Zot. Hubzilla, mentioned briefly above, is a Zot-protocol project borne out of the Friendica social network (which uses ActivityPub).
Just as Mastodon replicates Twitter microblogging, Friendica replicates original facebook functionality for connecting personal accounts (and of course can receive RSS and ActivityPub content). With ActivityPub services, your account lives on one particular server and can talk to accounts on other servers. You could, of course, use an ActivityPub service like Friendica so you only have one account to push information from. Unlike facebook, Friendica allows you to set very specific audiences for your posts, much like Google+’s “circles” feature, so you can make sure that some posts are only visible to your family, or to your friends, to your work colleagues, or completely publicly available. And, if you want to, you can move your Friendica account to another instance, which automatically transfers your followers to your new address–but everything you posted still stays on the original account.
With Hubzilla, you have what the developers call a “nomadic identity”, which allows you to maintain a consistent profile across the internet. If you build a personal website that uses Hubzilla, and create your account there, you can clone your account to another Hubzilla server. This will duplicate all of your connections (the people you follow, the people who follow you, and the different circles you had them all in), and all of your posts, but without sending duplicates of your content to your followers’ feeds. The developers boast that this will “strengthen the resilience” of your online identity, because nothing gets lost if a server goes down, and if the administrator of one of your host servers decides to censor you or delete your account, everything is still available on the other servers.
I haven’t yet mentioned the best part about Hubzilla’s modularity. Yes, it integrates with ActivityPub, but it also does much more. The built-in functionality of Hubzilla also allows you to publish static webpages and even self-contained wikis as part of your profile. You can also create additional channels linked to your account, which can function as either “personal” (i.e., a social media profile page), “community forum” (i.e., a closed group), or “public” (i.e., an open group). These can integrate not only with ActivityPub services and RSS, but with calendars, address books, and online file storage.
In the context of your online academic presence, the affordances of using a Hubzilla account mean that any updates you make to your account on your personal website can propagate to your institution’s website. Just added a new publication to your CV? You don’t need to contact the university webmaster to add it to your department profile. This also ensures that you have complete control over your data. If your university started a Mastodon instance, and the Associate Vice-Dean of Mastodon Moderation decides that they don’t agree with your posts, they could completely delete your account (and all your data), restrict you from posting locally, or stop the federation of your content. Of course, they also have access to your data on their servers and can theoretically read any “private”, unencrypted communication.
If you’ve ever moved institutions, you know what a pain it can be to export your documents from your institutional cloud drives, and download the course shells from your LMS so you can use them at your new institution. What about all of those recorded video lectures you want to re-use? If you post them on a university-run server, the university owns that data, can delete it whenever they want, and can restrict your access to it–even though you created that content. Hubzilla’s nomadic identity ensures that you maintain complete control of your online presence and your digital data, you can bring it with you around the internet, and anything you publish can be made completely visible to the public even if they don’t have a Hubzilla account. It combines the ease of posting on social media with the direct control of your own data on a personal website.
3b. Academic conferences
On the topic of access: academic conferences should be simulcast hybrid at the very least, and preferably conducted in real-time digitally via a social media (ActivityPub- or Zot-powered) webpage which one can access from any interconnected service. Instead needing to fly across the country or world (wasting precious fuel, money, and time), the same serendipitous conference conversations can happen via public-facing ActivityPub sites with invite-only posting privileges. Instead of organizing around a hashtag on Twitter, which could be co-opted by any other public user to derail a conversation, the only accounts that can post on the conference page are people who have paid conference registration fees. Then, you can have threaded posts on a single forum stream, so conversations on the same topic are easy to follow.
The conference page, which could be a Zot-powered Hubzilla channel, would serve as a community board for any conference-goers to start or join public conversations. The conference organizers could still plan a schedule of talks and workshops, which can be recorded and played via PeerTube, or broadcast live via OwnCast. Since all of the posts can support threaded conversation, any comments or questions directed at a specific talk/workshop would take place in its own discrete digital space, allowing for other people to easily find discussions they want to join in the moment. This would also allow for more searchable archiving methods; once the conference is over and the channel made visible to be general public, anyone would be able to see how specific conversations unfolded. Additionally, this does not preclude one-on-one conversations (the all-important “networking” aspect of an academic conference), since any one could directly and privately message another conference goer, in a format perhaps less daunting than a professional email. We can still achieve rich, full participation in a conference without being in the same physical location–and without silly work-arounds that try to mimic the physical world digitally.
Importantly, this would also make the conference more accessible to scholars who lack the means to travel. And we wouldn’t need to turn our academic discussions into trade expos to subsidize them. On top of burning dumb amounts of fossil fuels and decimating our shared environment, air travel can be expensive. And so is booking a hotel in another city, renting a car because most American cities don’t invest in public transportiation, and eating at a restaurant because your hotel room doesn’t include a way to prepare food. Many scholars don’t have the personal or institutional funds for all of these expenses, like graduate students on pittances for “stipends”, independent scholars with no institutional backing, researchers at institutions that prioritize teaching over research, precaritized adjuncts who still want to do research in order to stay competetive for tenure-track positions next cycle, or any other scholar without the familial wealth to fund their own travel. My home department allocates funds for graduate students “to attend conferences”, but the only conference that allowance afforded for me last year was hosted in the city I live in. The funds barely covered my dues and conference registration fees–at the reduced rates for graduate students. I’m fortunate that I also get a bus pass from the university, and that I have living arrangements in the city. I still had to pay out of pocket for any meals I purchased downtown. And that was just the big, yearly, general conference for my field. Travel, food, and lodging for any other conferences that year would all have to come out of my own funds.
Not only do digital conferences make attendance easier for academics who are not institutionally supported, but they also would save the scholarly organization money. You wouldn’t have to rent out hotel conference rooms, for one. Plus, with lower overhead and the potential for greater attendance, you could afford to decrease the registration fees, which would also help with increasing access for marginalized scholars.
3c. Academic labor: scholarly publications and organizations
You’re probably, to lesser or greater extents, involved in at least half a dozen academic organizations. This is how we organize conferences, promote our work through publications, offer grants or awards, network and establish collaborations or mentorships, share job openings, etc.. A traditional organization relies often on:
- The unpaid labor of dozens of graduate students (“for the experience”, not even always for access to the conferences they’re distributing badges for),
- the unpaid labor of conference presenters,
- the unpaid labor of reviewers for academic publications, and
- the unpaid (or poorly compensated) labor of governing members, webmasters, treasurers, etc. who keep the organization itself running and put together the conferences, journals, etc.
In general, a massive amount of academic labor is unpaid, which, in consort with the financial burdens of travelling to conferences, makes it so that non-tenure-track scholars without institutional funding need to pay out of pocket to continue doing the work scholars are trained and expected to do. Look at some of the smaller organizations you’re a part of. How many of the governing members aren’t in (or didn’t retire from) tenure-track research positions? How many of the conference presenters are independent scholars, or even graduate students from institutions in completely different geographical regions? How many of the journal reviewers aren’t tenure-track researchers? How many people from industry positions are involved, and to what extent, in governance or presenting/publishing? How many people in “alt-ac” gig-work (public-facing podcasts, videos, articles, etc.) are involved in the same activities, and to what extent?
What if research isn’t important for keeping your 5-5 teaching position at a community college, and your department doesn’t allocate research or travel funds? Or if you don’t have time to do research because you’re an adjunct cobbling together courses at 3 different institutions to barely make enough for rent (and torpedoing your chances at a tenure-track job)? Or if you take a K-12 job because that you love teaching and it lets you continue working in your field instead of pivoting to something unrelated? There are more PhDs being minted than there are non-contingent faculty positions in academic institutions, both in the US and Canada. Demanding free labor and increasing the financial barrier to entry to participate in scholarly work excludes trained researchers whose contributions to their fields are not being subsidized by “hedge funds with universities attached“, because when you’re too busy jumping through hoops to avoid poverty and worrying about having a place to live, you can’t afford to do free labor, let alone focus on making impactful contributions to research.
That’s ostensibly why organizations like the National Coalition of Independent Scholars exist: to help support trained researchers who don’t have a university paying them to do research. See also Sportula, a mutual aid organization for early-career Classics researchers from marginalized backgrounds. Although these organizations exist, the monetary awards they grant don’t come close to fully covering airfare and a hotel for the duration of a conference, let alone defray the actual costs of conducting and publishing research. Forget about using these grants to provide some kind of real income for an independent researcher. The expectation is that you find a job teaching or something, somewhere else, and use whatever time you have outside of your salaried work to do research as a hobby–even though doctoral programs don’t traditionally require teaching or train candidates to teach effectively.
Even in universities, research is often treated as unpaid labor. Tenure-track faculty are met with increasing teaching loads and service requirements (that more often fall on the shoulders of women and people of color, who often end up publishing less than their male colleagues). And with the increasing demands to “publish or perish” to justify your value to the university’s administrative class in order to make tenure*, tenure-track faculty need to chase more publications than ever before–usually at the expense of good teaching, since time spent teaching is negatively related to salary increases at research-oriented, doctoral-granting, and comprehensive institutions. And since some scholars are overworking themselves and leaning on personal support networks to meet these ever-higher expectations for teaching, publishing, and service, it all just becomes part of your job. If your contract didn’t change, your junior colleagues’ certainly did. The corporatization of universities has led to the same effects that plague most careers in the US: you’re doing more work, for less pay, while cutting corners, and you need to document your own productivity so you can use it to justify your existence to a middle-manager.
The percentage of faculty in comprehensive institutions who have published more than 10 journal articles in their careers doubled in the period between 1975 through 1997. The mean number of articles published by faculty in comprehensive institutions increased from three publications in 1984 to seven publications in 1997. Among the faculty in all other four-year institutions, the percentage publishing more than 10 articles also rose substantially from 1984.Youn & Price, 2009, pp. 217-218
Over fifty percent of the comprehensive faculty (higher than those from all other four-year institutions) report that publications used for promotion and tenure at their institution were “just counted, not qualitatively measured” (see The Condition of the Professoriate: Attitudes and Trends, 1989 and The Academic Profession: An International Perspective, 1993).
In short: the perverse incentives of capitalist conceptualizations of “productivity” that have crept into academic institutions mean that even researchers in coveted tenure-track positions, who are ostensibly paid to do research, still need to apply for external funding (wasted labor to the tune of €1.4B per annum in European universities alone) and teach and provide service to the university to earn their paychecks, even though tenure decisions typically rest mostly (if not exclusively) on the weight of one’s research productivity as measured by the number of articles and the prestige of where they’re published rather than the quality of the actual research.
As a result, the brick-and-mortar institutions which have been captured by corporatization and capitalist interests proliferate an unequal system, luring in aspiring researchers and ripping them off with the promise of the fabled “life of the mind” –a lifestyle historically only attainable for the independently wealthy white men whose wives took up additional unpaid labor to support them. Anyone lucky enough to land a tenure-track job needs to strategically spend as little time as possible on their teaching and service commitments in order to game the publication system. What happens when people phone-in their service? We get journals biased towards publishing only statistically significant findings, few scholars attempting replication studies because they don’t usually get published unless they contradict the original study, and editors and reviewers rejecting articles that their journals already published. Whoops.
We already see open-access journals cutting out the middleman. Rather than let gigantic publishing megacorporations extract free labor from researchers only to lock knowledge (including publicly-funded knowledge!) behind a paywall, communities of researchers are just hosting their own journals. Sure, they’re still laboring for free, but now it’s on their terms instead of the for-profit publisher’s. This is a step in the right direction towards liberating research from corporate interests, as it helps combat calculations of prestige based on how established a publisher is, and allows independent scholars without institutional subscriptions to access cutting-edge research for free. Some researchers are also publicly hosting registered reports and datasets, and some journals now publish pre-prints along side any editorial comments from the peer-review process. The latter not only makes the accept/reject decisions more transparent, but also recognizes and validates the labor that went into producing the original manuscript, so the work can still be published without being blocked by any of the aforementioned biases, poor judgement, or even personal squabbles between scholars in the same line of research. All of these steps are taking science out of the exclusive domain of capital-wielding institutions and not only making the results publicly available, but the process publicly auditable.
We need to go further, though. The researchers doing the free labor of writing and peer-reviewing for these journals are still mostly the population who are clutching desperately at the double-edged sword of the professional academic career: their job security and promotion rests on doing this additional uncompensated work, but the other work they do for their home institutions is what pays enough to cover their living expenses. We can start by compensating people for this work. For-profit journals sometimes throw a pittance to chief editors (often in the form of a course release negotiated by the publisher paying off the department directly), but peer-reviewers and article authors get absolutely nothing. This is the work that drives science, and the only way to get paid to do it is to juggle a ton of other, sometimes unrelated work, for a university.
The issues of equitable pay and institutional prestige can’t be erased simply through social media, so where do protocols like ActivityPub come in? Some of the newbies to the Mastodon scene may not have noticed that the more established members using the service belong to marginalized groups, since the aforementioned nazification of corporate social media led to unabated harassment. Before Mastodon’s eternal September, it wasn’t uncommon to see people organizing mutual aid for vulnerable community members who, for example, were forced into homelessness by bigoted families of origin.
Indeed, much fediverse hosting relies on mutual aid and community support. Unlike megacorporate social media platforms, the open and federated nature of these platforms means almost anybody could start a Mastodon (or other fediverse service) server, but maintaining a large community requires additional funding. Buying a domain may be relatively cheap, as may be fees for the minimal server space required to host text-based content. But HD pictures and videos are far larger than text. Once you scale up the number of users, the space required to store all those files–and the bandwidth to transfer them–grows exponentially. If you joined a previously “open” Mastodon server in the last week or so (i.e., one that allowed you to instantly sign up without manual administrator approval), you may have noticed your host server’s infrastructure slow to a halt, choked by the thousands of new users. Not everyone was renting high-end hardware to run their servers, so the extra web traffic crippled them: pictures and video took longer to upload, and even text posts took hours to propogate across the fediverse. Many server administrators have set up Patreon or Liberapay accounts for community members to chip in towards the infrastructure overhead.
Optional pay structures, like Patreon, are very common on the internet, especially with the rise of independent content creators–including educational content creators publishing video essays, blog posts, podcasts etc., who are often alumni from graduate programs trying to continue their academic work despite being excluded from professional academia, translating their academic work for a public audience, or applying literary and cultural theory to recent pop culture for public audiences). Rather than rely on minimal ad revenue from platforms like YouTube or Twitch, where content algorithms exacerbate income disparity for creators by funnelling viewers to already top-performing content, we can set up our organizations into more horizontal consortia for all academics–including free-academics who, by force or by choice, end up in the alt-academic or education-adjacent gig economy–by equitably redistributing funding. And we can use optional pay-what-you-can fee structures to fundraise while ensuring academics are getting paid for their contributions.
At the macro-institutional level, universities provide a degree of centralized funding to each department, and only the recent neoliberalization and student-as-consumer corporate model means that undergraduate enrollment drives whether a department lives or dies, since tuition has shot up in response to axed government funding and student loans turned into a racket. Judging the worth of a department or a class (or choosing whether to hire/retain an adjunct) based on student enrollment means that academic work–both teaching and research–is only valued based on its capital-earning potential when students look at universities and colleges as certification gateways to higher income and look for majors that will earn them the most money.
The financial incentives for a corporate-structured, capital-driven university lead to wealthy parents bribing universities to get their children accepted, as well as “charitable donations” from “philanthropic organizations“, megacorporations, or banks. If your robotics and computer science research is profitable for the US Army, military-industrial complex, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, etc., or if it can help hedge funds game the stock market, you can bet you’ll get that sweet, sweet, donation money flowing in to fund named chair positions, tenure lines, higher stipends for your grad students, and new equipment. And all of this is to launder their reputations and make sure they can poach graduates straight into employment at their company. Instead of universities equitably distributing their massive endowments for teaching and research across departments, they let megacorporations and billionnaires decide what research gets funded based on their financial interests. It doesn’t have to be this way, though.
Academic organizations are more micro-institutional than universities, connecting people in the same discipline or interest across geographic and institutional boundaries. While they do accept philanthropic donations to help defray costs, their primary funding streams are usually conference fees and membership dues. They need to pay for the webhosting, as well as honoraria and maybe travel reimbursement for superstar plenary speakers, but, as outlined it the previous subsection, they also can spend a fortune renting out physical locations for conferences. And these dues are collected regressively. Ostensibly, some organizations give discounts to graduate student members, independent scholars, or K-12 teachers, but they also have a one-time payment for a “lifelong membership”. If you’re a career academic in a tenure-track position, why wouldn’t you go for the membership that saves you money in the long run? Maybe it’s the equivalent of 20 years of dues paid in full up front, but you avoid all future increases, and, most importantly, you’re already getting paid a real salary and have guaranteed job security for life. How many early-career researchers who fall into adjunct traps or post-doc/visiting scholar loops are getting paid enough to make that investment and reap those savings? How many contingent scholars can bank on being able to continue working in their field in 20 years?
And if you’re tenured faculty at a research institution, your department might even find funds to pay those lifetime fees up front–or they’re content with paying your yearly dues anyway. The financial privilege of established career academics, afforded to them either directly or indirectly from their institution’s coffers, enables them not only to fly across the country and book hotels for (several different) yearly conferences, but ultimately makes it cheaper for them to pay dues to these organizations as well. Does your department fully fund graduate students’ active participation in relevant organizations? What about adjuncts or other contingent faculty? No? Just the tenure-track faculty? Academic organizations can do what the megacorporate publishers do: charge through the nose for institutional access. If a tenured professor’s university, department, or prestigious grant is footing the bill, they can pay more. The university is run like a corporation, so this is just the cost of doing business. Progressive dues and conference fees would be a way of redistributing the institutional wealth universities are extracting from underpaid graduate student, adjunct, and other contingent academic labor.
Increased institutional rates can better subsidize dues for, again: trained researchers (or researchers in training) who don’t have generational wealth or institutional backing. Our current models are excluding people without financial means from participating in science. With fully-online conferences done well, open-access publishing, and progressive membership dues, academic organizations can lower the financial barriers to entry for low-income scholars. Additionally, moving organizations and conferences online in a way that facilitates conversations and enables actual networking (instead of, e.g., the one-way “webinar” model) would allow these marginalized scholars to maintain a more consistent presence in organizations, including taking active leadership roles. How can you serve on a committee when you can’t afford to travel to the yearly conferences, and your online participation is limited to watching a committee broadcast feed and responding to email chains?
With federated protocols, an organization that’s committed to open access and public outreach can communicate with the public from their own “social media” infrastrcture. With wider accessibility that lowers overhead costs, scholarly organizations can attract more dues-paying members and fee-paying conference attendees. We could transform our scholarly organizations into academic cooperatives, with members offering additional services to the public (or private institutions) like teaching, outreach, and consulting, facilitated via the organization’s infrastructure. A portion of fees collected for these services could be collected by the organization, as a means of disentangling the already-atomized academic work from institutional funding streams, “professional academia“, and the whims of corporate interests. We can then use the organization’s funds not only to pay authors, presenters, and reviewers piecemeal for their work, but also to potentially fund substantial stipends or even salaries. We can decentralize science and education from corporate-captured institutions.
So what exactly does this look like? If we can organize limited-duration, synchronous conferences through Hubzilla, we can certainly organize an entire community to converse asynchronously. These conversations are already happening on Twitter (via loosely-connected exchanges of 280-character quips) and in facebook groups–both formats locked in extractive, intrusive, corporate walled gardens. Organizations can instead host their own Hubzilla instances, and create different channels for specific purposes, leading to a structure like this:
- Community discussions (any dues-paying community members can post new discussions or contribute to existing discussions. This would be open year-round.)
- Official announcements (publicly available channel used by governing members to push relevant announcements such as job listings, grants, calls for papers, etc.)
- Governing board (private channel for governing members, backlog of discussions and recorded synchronous meetings for future governing members)
- Grant application committee (private channel for committee members only, similar to governing board channel, but for managing and awarding grants)
- Peer-reviewed publications (publicly open for comments only, editor can publish peer-reviewed, approved articles as posts)
- Pre-print publications (publicly open for article submissions as posts, editor must approve the article before it becomes publicly visible–this avoids off-topic posts or nonviable papers from clogging the feed, anyone can publicly comment on pre-prints)
- 2022 Conference (after conference dates, a read-only archive of previous year’s presentations and conversations)
- 2023 Conference (ongoing, active discussion during conference dates)
- 2024 Conference (read-only information for CFPs, editors, etc. until active conference dates)
- Elementary French 1 Course, Section 1 (private channel available to paying students. hosts and links to educational content. Is managed by a paid instructor. Archived at end of course)
- Elementary French conversations (private channel available to any students who enrolled in any section or iteration of the course. Maintains a community for lay-people who hired the paid services of the organization)
Members can use the members-only, “community discussion” channel to talk about their work, and network for various opportunities (mentorships, job postings, collaborations, grants, etc.). It’s open year-round and facilitates low-stakes access to other scholars in the organization. Unlike email, which can be inundated with external spam, students asking for extensions, and the unending stream of messages from dozens of deans, scholars can go directly to this message board to solicit and offer advice. Unlike the older internet forums which require a separate account and log-in, the federated, interconnected nature of Hubzilla allows you to catch up with family, post pictures of your dog, and converse with opt-in groups–all from the same account on your home site, and with the ability to keep your life segmented or intertwined as much as you prefer with fine-tuned privacy controls.
Much like an official webpage, an organization can maintain an “official announcements” channel to push out important information to members. This channel (and even individual posts) can be set to read-only, or open to comments from members only, or open to the public–depending on the desired level of interaction. Official organization business, such as governing members’ meetings or committee meetings, can also take place in similar private-access channels.
Hubzilla channels could also be used for collecting and publishing articles. Peer review can still be anonymously handled, with the editor sharing pre-prints to reviewers. This can be done via direct messaging on Hubzilla, or the way it’s done now via email. After peer reviewer comments are anonymized, the editor will post them as public comments on the pre-print publication post (and of course forward them to the author(s) for the revision process). While lowering barriers to two-way engagement directly with scholars, this maintains the rigor of peer review and the openness of open-access and pre-print processes.
Universities subsidize payroll and other overhead by offering courses, why can’t a scholarly organization do the same? There are some that already do via traditional web services. For any services offered by the organization to a general public audience, separate Hubzilla channels could host synchronous or asynchronous courses. If you want a traditional LMS experience, Moodle and Canvas can be installed on the organization’s website and linked via this channel. If you don’t care about maintaining a grade book or importing courses from an LMS, the Hubzilla channel could host everything–and maybe someone will program addons for Hubzilla that allow those functions. A single channel could host a course for paid users throughout its full duration, being archived after the final course date. Another channel could exist for lay-people who have enrolled in any section of that course before, during any date, effectively hosting a community of laypeople interested in the work done by the scholarly organization. The example above is for an elementary language course, but it could easily be “intro to archaeology” or “feminist theory for film critique”.
Unlike traditional web services, which require you to create different accounts on every website you go to, the “nomadic identity” of Hubzilla makes connecting to various online communities as easy as connecting in person. Your public library card gives you access to any other public libraries in your library system that you want to physically visit, and their interconnectedness allow you to borrow books from physically distant locations via interlibrary loan. With digital databases and collaborations between institutions, your library card can grant you access to digital holdings stored on a server across the planet. If these institutions were not connected, you would have to apply for a library card from any location that had the book you wanted. If we reorganize academic work similarly, your Hubzilla profile can be your digital access card to a digital world without borders, not beholden to corporate profit incentives.
4. Summary and conclusion
Waxing philosophical about the utopian connectiveness afforded by internet technologies is nothing new, and I don’t pretend that the mere existence of these tools will liberate science and education from capitalist interests’ exploitative yokes. I wrote this article to show academics that publication infrastructure and organizational methods already exist that can lead to a future with more equitable, accessible education and research. It’s up to us to intentionally use them. The open-access journals currently publishing are a perfect example of taking an ideological stance: academics have been exploited to provide free labor to for-profit journals, and decided to use the internet to publish papers in a more equitable, accessible venue.
It took a global pandemic to move academic conferences online, but now they’re beginning to return in-person. “Return to status quo” is a choice. Webinar software does not replicate the full conference experience, so I understand not wanting to miss out on the serendipitous conversations-over-coffee that lead to collaborations. But, as I’ve outlined above, there are tools that can replicate the benefits of in-person conferences while providing equitable access for people without the personal or institutional means to afford fees and travel–and avoiding air travel is a major way to cut back your personal carbon emissions. (Also: maybe if we stop relying on air travel, the US will finally reinvest in trains, which is infinitely more comfortable, is much more environmentally-friendly, and gets you directly to a city center.)
Through the communication tools available to us via the internet, we can choose to be more intentional about how we organize ourselves and conduct our work. How much of your work could you do from any computer, theoretically anywhere in the world? When you’re travelling to a conference, have you worked on your research, writing/editing/reviewing, and grading from a laptop while on the train or plane? I certainly have.
And although educational institutions were unceremoniously forced into synchronous and asynchronous remote teaching in 2020, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of traditional educators, education researchers do explore questions of best practices for these modalities, and if you reach out to a university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, I’m sure they’d be happy to provide recommendations. The knowledge is out there for instructors to teach remotely at least as effectively as the traditional brick-and-mortar classroom. Online and correspondence schools have existed for decades, but elitism and prestige solidify the power of traditional universities, globally ranked in lists published by other institutional powers.
People are using social media to connect with each other–that’s just a fact. People are learning, teaching, and contributing to shared knowledge via these social media networks. My personal favorite example: the video game speed-running communities, in which people mine games’ code for data and try to find exploitative glitches (“tech”) to help “runners” finish the game faster–such as by manipulating the game world in an unintended way to inject code that launches the credits. To analogize with academia: there are researchers exploring theory (ways to beat a game faster) and publishing proofs-of-concept, and there are people applying the theory to practice, and then they upload video proof to the internet for peer review. Some runners do this for fun, and others for competition to see who can get the “world record”. Some of these individuals collaborate in the form of “races”, where, along with other speedrunners of the same game, they each simultaneously “speedrun” the game to see who can finish fastest.
And there are regular conferences where they execute these speedruns to fundraise for charities like Médecins sans frontières. Many of the speedrunners who participate in these events host individual content via YouTube, and broadcast their live practice sessions via Twitch (since many of these in-game actions require precise timing down to the millisecond). They collect ad revenue from and amass followers on these corporate social media platforms, but also have Patreon accounts to collect subscriptions and donations from people who find their content entertaining or impressive. Both paid and free subscribers can then interact with the speedrunner via asynchronous YouTube comments, synchronous Twitch chat, or sometimes even voice chat via Discord.
Speedrunning communities organize around social media platforms, individual websites, and conferences. People in these communities are doing the similar sorts of work as academics when it comes to knowledge creation, sharing, and auditing. They provide free education for people looking to do speedrunning. They host their own freely searchable content archives. They share and boost each others’ work. At the individual and community level, they accept donations and payment–for compensation for the work they produce, for maintenance of the digital infrastructure, and for external philanthropy.
Communities are currently using existing digital tools (even if many of them are corporate-owned) to organize and support each other. Academia can do the same, if we so choose.