OER23 Guest Blog Post: ‘A Conversation About Mastodon being a Welcoming Ecosystem for OER Practitioners’

Clément Aubert and Alan Levine

Note: This blog post developed organically starting with open discussion of Mastodon in an OER23 Discord channel, where Clément and Alan decided to co-author in an etherpad, and they never even spoke together until the day before submitting this post. This is how connections are made in open spaces.

Who are you?

CA: I’m Clément Aubert, Assistant Prof. in Computer Sciences at Augusta University, GA, USA. Among other things, I am involved in OER creation, popularization and usage, as I always believed that educational material (and, in general, education) should be free. We are fortunate in Georgia to have Affordable Learning Georgia to promote and fund the creation of OER.

AL: Hello Clément, I am Alan Levine, currently based near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, working as Director of Community for Open Education Global. Like you, I operate from a core belief of openly sharing materials and ideas. I have been doing this even before I experienced an electric moment in 1993 at the Maricopa Community Colleges of plugging a little Macintosh SE/30 into an Ethernet port and publishing a first web page. Tim Berners-Lee’s dream of the web is still alive in me.

How did you first learn about Mastodon? What made you interested in it?

AL: I’ve been interested in informal networking before even the web was a thing. From trying twitter in early 2007 (where I described it as “the stupidest thing I ever saw”) but very quickly rising the curve of what I called the Twitter Life Cycle I found its affordances of expanding my key network connections and inputs of valuable resources unparalleled to anything before. Still, it was late 2016 that some colleagues introduced me to Mastodon (maybe blog posts from Kate Bowles and Laura Ritchie,  as a novel space for “small stories”?). Being still relatively unknown, Mastodon was fresh, quiet. My first account was @cogdog@mastodon.social — I can only trace my roots by scrolling all the way back to Nov 23, 2016 to see what looks now like childish chatter. I pretty much dabbled infrequently with just posting photos and quips from my small town in Arizona even including a post when I got to visit Kate in Australia.

I was pretty erratic with some posts in 2020 but picked up my participation in 2022 with the first wave of twitter departures given its purchase by a reckless billionaire. I tried to build interest in the OEGlobal community though my colleagues seemed not interested in creating an instance. 

Luckily my OERu colleagues Wayne Mackintosh and Dave Lane had started early with the instance I am on now (@cogdog@social.fossdle.org). I believe it’s better to start fresh in Mastodon rather than try to replicate what I did in twitter, so I am following a bit more conservatively.

CA: A colleague of mine (Pierre Boudes) experimented with diaspora* (a network very similar to Mastodon by many aspects) in its very early stages (around 2010–2011), and I remember not really seeing the interest of having a network to share “bite size” thoughts.

Ten years later, I now live in the USA and realize how damaging the private sector can be when it tampers with (or, actually, decides of) the content users see on their plat-forms. An online social media / social networking service is not “just” a tool to connect people, but constantly impact what users see. At the same time, it started to become crucial in my professional endeavors to “exhibit my network” (be it on linkedin, researchgate, twitter, you name it). Having always preferred “free” alternatives (that is, carried out by non-profit associations or funded by state governments) to commercial ones, it came quite naturally to me that mastodon was the ideal place to build this network and share my “bite size” thoughts.

AL: I vaguely remember diaspora but that was one of the many new things I did not try at the time. I remember the early work of Ben Werdmuller with Elgg as a social media platform and his later developments of a Create Once Publish Everywhere platform Known which I ran for a short time on my own domain , but never fully developed a workflow for it. I really frame the exhibiting of my work on my own platform, the Domain of One’s Own concept, and aim for anything published elsewhere to be the exhaust from sources I own/manage.

Get Federated!  flickr remix image by Alan Levine shared under Creative   

Without getting too technical, what is the significance of a “federated” network tool?

CA: Think of them as regulatory instances. Regulations are sometimes perceived poorly, as awful diktats coming from some button pushers preventing entrepreneurs from freeing their creative power. But, in reality, they quite often enable progress: imposing only one type of chargers on phones (USB-C), as recently done by the European Union, will not bother anyone (or, at least, no citizens). Quite the opposite, it will make switching, recycling and re-using phones much easier. But it does not impose any type of activity on the phone: you can still use it in any way you like.

A federated network has the same flavor: it sets rules not to prevent users from expressing themselves, but to make sure they can be read and heard independently of the tool (think, phone) they decide to use.

AL: These are the virtues I support but at the same time I recognize that this ecosystem is much more complex for novice users and the simplicity and convenience that comes with commercial platforms is not there. I wish that was not an obstacle, but it seems like most people are not as invested in taking on more complex tools. I also have a theory that the rise of more time spent on small screens has had an effect on what we are willing to try as new approaches.

Also, I wonder a bit too about the verb tense, we are talking about being federated by platforms (passive tense) rather than us as individuals doing the federation, as we do and have done by networking above and beyond platforms.

Do you use it now? Why? Where does it fit in your other online activities?

CA: Yes! Because many colleagues use it, and because I am a bit isolated in the US (my research themes are more European-centered). I check it on a daily basis, carefully reading pretty much everything in my feed, and enjoying it for the most part.

AL: I have been dialing back my attention to the “birdspace” as its called in Mastodon- I removed the app from my phone, and give more time to Mastodon. I am trying new approaches, not following as many people, trying to follow more people I do not know, and being pretty regular about dropping follows. My aim is to see what’s new in a day in maybe 10 minutes of scroll time. In many ways, it feels as fresh and new as Twitter did in 2007, and more people revel in the “smallness” found there rather than seeing it as a place for megaphones. It’s refreshing how the developers respond to the community, the more careful attention to accessibility (the features for image descriptions are so much better), and things as simple as being to easily edit a previous post. At the same time, there is no universal search, so I rely heavily on bookmarking information I want to remember rather than relying on finding it later (which is nearly impossible)

I use IFTTT to create recipes to publish my blog posts automatically to Mastodon (and the other space) as well as a series of Pinboard bookmarked interesting sites I call “cool tech”, which is very easy to do– see https://cogdogblog.com/2022/11/gizmo-to-mastodon/ So I am able to share the same items to Mastodon that I also send to Twitter.

I actually am not a believer in just dumping everything from twitter (yet). I still get immense value out of both spaces, mainly for finding interesting software, projects, resources, people that I still get a regular dosing from. By using lists, and using Tweetdeck rather than the app or the Twitter web helps me filter out much of the foulness of Twitter.

flickr photo by Alan Levine shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Where is your “home” (instance)? Do you have more than one? Is that important?

AL: My current home is @cogdog@social.fossdle.org at an instance organized by Wayne Mackintosh and Dave Lane from the OER Foundation. I did the migration there (which was so easy) from my original account as well as a second one created elsewhere I never used. I run others! One for Open Education Global (my employer) @oeglobal@social.fossdle.org.

I also run @tdc@social.ds106.us for the purposes of migrating the DS106 Daily Create over to Mastodon. I might have two more I cannot remember right now! You might notice the convention of user names are more than an “@’” convention because you include the instance address as a second “@”.

CA: My current home instance is @clementaubert@lipn.info. It is hosted by my Alma Mater in France (Paris 13, more precisely their computer science department), run by colleagues there. They created it quite recently (in the wake of Elon Musk’s takeover of twitter), and I know personally pretty much all the persons behind the registered accounts! In other words: I feel home there, and believe that it is a very welcoming instance (well, provided you are an Academics in Computer Science…).

How can Open Educators create a valuable network for OER23 and beyond?

CA: That’s a tricky question that we certainly won’t solve with a blog post :-) What I enjoy with Mastodon is that it allows a more “fine-grained” version of newsletters or other group chat platforms: you can subscribe only to the conferences or venues you are interested in, instead of being “spammed” by all the announcements for all the conferences remotely related to your field. Also, you can obtain more valuable insights, as colleagues will feel encouraged to share questions or reflections that may seem naïve and not necessarily worth an “official” announcement, but that may highlight something you ignored for decades or trigger new ideas.

There is also, probably, a pedagogical approach to this tool, but I’m not sure I see it very clearly now.

AL: Try it! The first step is to enter with an open mind and sense of curiosity, and leave behind the expectations of another place. When teaching content creation, be it writing, photography, audio, I ask my students before just picking up a tool to first be a reader/viewer/listener and study the works of others. Mastodon or the fediverse itself, may not reveal its value from a first experience. Read, and participate, and look to find connections perhaps beyond your current ones. Or just play. 

See a continuation of this conversation in Mastodon

Send a post to me or Clément when/if you arrive, and we will be there to respond. And look for some interesting experiments ALT is setting up for OER23 as a safe place to make your first steps into Mastodon.

CA: Oh, and by the way, a good way of getting to know mastodon better is to follow the Mastodon: Research Symposium and Tool Exploration Workshop that will take place on 22nd and 23rd of June, 2023, in the University of Warwick, UK and online (hybrid event, GMT time)! Check out their call for presentations

1 Comment

  • Alan Levine says:

    Thanks Clément for being open to writing this conversational style. For the reader, well it likely does not explain Mastodon well, it’s better learned from experience than from well formed documents.

    If you are wanting to play, well just make an account somewhere (it’s easy to move). Not sure how? Ask here! Or during the conference in Discord. And I leave it to the OER23 planners to share details of the activities happening for the exploding instance ;-)

    If you have a Mastodon account, please join our conversation in the fediverse

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