Tuesday 29 August 2023

Pitfalls for Universities Wishing to Join the Fediverse

Back in early July, Leonhard Dobusch published a call to action for universities to join the fediverse.
Cartoon (of a mamooth, but that’s close enough)Dmitry Abramov/Pixabay

Good call! Especially given that Mastodon (et al.) are anything but free from censorship concerns. Instead of dealing with a single, giant censor (Google, Facebook, Musx...), you get to deal with hundreds of petty censors in the Mastodon world (often in the form of “defederation”). You may also get kicked off any random Mastodon/ActivityPub server for “having the wrong opinions/beliefs”. ­čÖä

Plus, there’s the posts moderation issue. Zuckerberg turned into a Frankenstein after creating Facebook; Dorsey turned into a Frankenstein after creating Twitter (although he made an effort to get rid of the stigma by selling the monster to the feeble-minded Musx); Google turned into a Frankenstein after purchasing YouTube from its original creators; etc., etc.

What they all have in common: their child “got out of hand”, so that today, they’re no longer capable of controlling it. It’s now romping and rampaging around the world, creating more harm and evil than being beneficent.

In panic, the Frankensteins have introduced fierce censorship (often facilitated by malfunctioning pseudo-AI), because they don’t have the resources to fund professional moderation of content. (For the giant asocial networks, no one could provide the necessary resources anymore – not even the richest persons on the planet, as can be seen; the monsters have become too large, overgrowing their helpless creators/owners.)

Moderation isn’t censorship (shouldn’t be), but by 2023, the boundaries between the two have become blurred. Typically, for example, people earning their living as “moderators” are incapable of differentiating between ad rem and ad hominem posts/statements, although that should be the first skill required of any moderator. As a result, you often see self-proclaimed “moderators” censuring, censoring and banning perfectly legitimate expressions of uncomfortable/diverging/minority opinions.

They call provocative writing “trolling”, and proceed to ban it, despite Germany’s foremost literary critic, MRR, having issued the immortal dictum: “Writing is provocation.” (“Schreiben hei├čt provozieren.”) If your main concern, prior to writing anything, is not to offend anyone, for your writing not to be perceived as “offensive”, you might as well shut up and write nothing at all.

They demand “politeness”, despite Nero Wolfe having famously said (my paraphrase), “Anyone can flout courtesy who is willing to bear the odium.” The odium should not imply banning or (in the fediverse) “defederation”, however; if you find someone’s creative output offensive, just skip them, don’t read them; no one is holding a gun to your head, forcing you to consume their content.

To become a good moderator, training is needed. No one is willing to fund the proper training (and remuneration) of moderators, though. The task is typically delegated down to the lowest levels of corporate pyramids, being underestimated as not really all that important.

All of this are potential pitfalls for universities that would consider launching their own servers into the fediverse, as they well should. Professional moderation – rather than stupid (semi-)automatic censorship, or one performed by undertrained minions for minimum wage – costs money. Will universities ever be able to afford it? And would they even be interested in it, given their reputation, in conservative circles, of having turned into hotbeds of left-leaning censorship?

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