Gophers and Elephants

Writing 181

Social networking is becoming a natural and important part of the Goucher community. Goucher reaches out to potential students, faculty, and family members through traditional networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Students and faculty have access to a smaller network localized within the Gopher app for iOS and Android to post information, exchange messages, and get feedback. Goucher clearly intends to make use of social technology to further connect with people with little-to-no obstruction. However, the networks’ own political agenda can interfere with Goucher’s plans in posting their own content; centralized networks and their parent companies own users’ data. At the same time, while the Gopher app makes up for relinquishing control of their data, the app also comes with its own issues and doesn’t completely solve the problem.

Before really understanding the problem with centralization, in my sophomore year of high school, I researched the disadvantages of a photographer’s perspective and a legal perspective of using Instagram to share photos. In that research, I discovered the centralization of Instagram’s data; Instagram takes away the rights to my photos. This centralization of data can prove detrimental to institutions that own photos or videos; they are forced to relinquish this data to another company. In an interview with April Glaser and Will Oremus for (the) Slate magazine, Eugen Rochko, the developer behind the Mastodon social network, makes the issues with centralization very clear: “Exactly. Centralization is not just centralization of power, but centralization of data as well. So the more data a platform like Facebook collects—it’s all in one place. It’s easy to access and to analyze”. Despite having some advantages in content control and review, centralization of data shifts the controls from the user to the company.

In an attempt to restore control of data to users, Rockho is working on a new network called Mastodon. It’s a decentralized social network that makes up for the disadvantages of centralized social network. From the aforementioned interview, Rockho also mentions how Mastodon works in this regard: “With Mastodon, the data is separated. Every server stores only the data of its local signed-up users and the data that they subscribe to from their friends. If you take the data just from one server, you don’t have a lot” (Glaser and Oremus). Eugen doesn’t own all of Mastodon; rather, he just owns his particular server (aka an ‘instance’). These instances talk to each other to make a network rather than being hosted in one place: this is known as federation. You can think of it like the federation in the Star Trek series: there are many planets and species, but they all come together to form a single federation without being a giant entity.

This would give Goucher an opportunity to host its own Mastodon instance that interacts with other instances. However, Mastodon’s federation can also lead to access to unwanted servers that could potentially be harmful for the Goucher community or that can violate laws. Thankfully, Rochko has also thought of this. In the same interview, he states how interoperability with other instances work: instance owners can block other instances from the timeline, images, or the whole instance altogether (Glaser and Oremus). Although some consider this as censorship of Mastodon data, this would also provide Goucher the ability to give its students the ability to interact with other Mastodon users from other instances.

Decentralized social networks like Mastodon have an advantage on its interoperability with other networks. Many software developers have been making networks that can work with others; examples include Instagram-alternative PixelFed and YouTube-alternative PeerTube. The interoperability between said networks is possible because of an underlying technology: ActivityPub. According to the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the ActivityPub framework is a means of sharing social data between software and services: “The ActivityPub protocol is a decentralized social networking protocol based upon the [ActivityStreams] 2.0 data format. It provides a client to server API for creating, updating and deleting content, as well as a federated server to server API for delivering notifications and content” (Lemmer Webber, “ActivityPub”). As such, any services that useActivityPub can interact with other instances. If Goucher hosts Mastodon, PixelFed, and PeerTube, they could make these services interact with each other quite easily while allowing public access. In contrast, using services like Facebook or Twitter require a third-party cross-posting service like HootSuite or If This Then That (IFTTT) to work between social networks.

Alas, as with any social network, a concern for privacy arises. Naturally, we believe that social networks force us to think before we post. Professor Judith Donath from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society describes this behavior in her book, The Social Machine: “In a world where there is a great deal of privacy, where we know little of each other, people are free to act as they will, and there is little social pressure on them to conform. Privacy supports diversity; where people have protected private space, they have the freedom to be different from the public mainstream ideal” (Donath 304). This rings true for any social network, including Mastodon. It is also true that, because of this, we tend to think more about what we post. In the Psychnology Journal, Florencio Cabello, Marta Franco, and Alex Haché in 2013 discusses the restriction: “The uncertainty about what we post online also involves serious consequences for fundamental freedoms such as free speech and the right to information” (Cabello, Franco, and Hache 49). Thankfully, Rochko considered this idea; in Mastodon, users can change the visibility level of their content so that it can be targeted towards a certain audience or to the public. Goucher can make use of this to send content on Mastodon only to its users or to the public. This ability to control who sees the content can come handy for sharing information about an upcoming club meeting privately but sharing the next Common Hour publicly.

However, you may be asking the question: don’t we already have something like this with the Gopher app? We do have the Gopher app as a means of communicating with each other in a social way for posting information inside of Goucher. However, from a software developer’s and user’s standpoint, the Gopher app doesn’t necessarily have the same advantages as something like Mastodon. The Gopher app doesn’t have a network that can be accessed via a web client or desktop app; if anyone wants to view the latest updates in the Gopher app, he/she must open the app on his/her phone to do it. Another issue arises from the app: Gopher app users can’t post the same kind of content as one can via Mastodon. Mastodon makes use of sharing links, uploading videos and images, and emoji, as well as providing spoiler tags to censor content to a degree; the Gopher app lacks some of this functionality, forcing its users to a specific type of content. Another way to look at the Gopher app versus Mastodon is this: Mastodon can do what the Gopher app does and then some. We can further modify the web version of the Mastodon client to include Goucher links and branding, if we really wanted to. In addition to this, there are already a few decent mobile apps for Mastodon that anyone can use to connect with their own accounts.

I’d also like to make myself clear on my stance on use of networks like Mastodon at Goucher: I am not saying that we should completely abandon networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc. in favor of Mastodon. Most of the world still relies on those networks to connect with family and friends and will probably not migrate right away. Rather, I am proposing that we take a step in supporting an open community that isn’t entirely governed by a single company by hosting instances of Mastodon, PeerTube, PixelFed, etc. Though we cannot guarantee that everyone will migrate to this universe, or fediverse, in this case, we can at least show our support for projects like this. Mastodon currently has over a million users from different instances all over the globe, so it already has established itself in the social network space. However, it is up to us to decide whether we want to have social networks that work for us by us instead of the other way around.