What is a mastodon?
If you said ‘extinct relative of the woolly mammoth’, then congratulations, you might just possibly be a palaeontologist. And while we’re sure some of our readers would appreciate an article full of mastodon-related facts and stories, sorry but we’re going to have to disappoint you on this one.
No, the kind of mastodon we’re looking at today is a far more modern one – a social network to be precise. This network has a few key features that set it apart from the rest, and it’s precisely those features that make it potentially useful for scientists and academics.
So what exactly is Mastodon, and what are those benefits?
Read on to discover it all.
What is Mastodon?
Mastodon is a decentralised, open-source social network that has been gaining popularity among scientists as a platform for academic networking and the effective dissemination of science. Unlike Twitter, which is centrally controlled by a single company, Mastodon is decentralised, meaning that anyone can set up and run their own server, or ‘instance’ and then connect with other instances.
These individual communities form the unique structure of the Mastodon network. Critically, they allow those running them to determine the specific rules and etiquette of posting within each space. This is what really distinguishes it from Twitter, since there’s no overarching corporation to decide who or what gets censored or banned – at the end of day, it’s down to the users who run each server.
In fact, being different from Twitter has been Mastodon’s intention since 2016 when it was first created, and it seeks to re-create the best parts of the hugely popular social network while addressing some of its shortcomings. So, what are the differences between Mastodon and Twitter, and what are the benefits of using Mastodon for academics?
The Benefits of Mastodon for Scientists
Mastodon offers several benefits for scientists that make it an attractive alternative to other social media platforms. For example:
- Mastodon allows users to have more control over their data and privacy, as they can choose which instance to join and have the option to host their own server. If you’re concerned about being exposed to specific viewpoints, or just want to narrow down your scientific discussion for the sake of practicality, then Mastodon could be the one for you.
- Mastodon has a strong focus on community building, with instances dedicated to precisely defined topics and interests, making it easier for scientists to connect with others in their field.
- Mastodon also allows for longer posts and more characters than Twitter, which, naturally, can be beneficial for sharing research findings and engaging in discussions with other academics.
However, while Mastodon has several benefits for scientists, it is important to note that:
- It is still a relatively new platform and has not yet gained the same level of popularity as Twitter. Because of this, Mastodon may not be as effective for broadcasting messages to such a wide range of people.
- On the other hand, the rise of Mastodon has demonstrated the potential of the open ActivityPub protocol for decentralised social media management. As more scientists begin to use Mastodon and other decentralised social media platforms to share and discuss their work, it will be interesting to see how these platforms continue to evolve and impact the wider academic community.
Interested in learning more about how the ‘open’ movement can benefit scientists and academics? Check out our Research Beat interview with Kate Gardner (link here when podcast is published), co-founder of scientifyRESEARCH, where you can access more funding options than you ever imagined.
Using Mastodon for Scientific Communication and Collaboration
Mastodon is fantastic as a platform for scientific communication and collaboration. To get started on Mastodon, scientists can simply create a profile and find relevant communities by searching for keywords related to their research interests. The network is constantly rolling out new features such as improved content and profile search, quote posts and groups, making it easier than ever for you to connect with peers and share your work. Helpfully, Mastodon also allows you to easily move your profile to a different server at any time without losing any followers.
Mastodon provides a space for scientists to share their research and engage in conversations with peers. In fact, the platform is designed for conversation, and while it is possible to go viral on Mastodon, the focus is really on building networks and engaging with others in a more meaningful way.
Is Mastodon for me?
One thing is for sure – if you’re a researcher interested in open science, meta-research, replication, reproducibility, open educational resources, open access, and open data, then you’ll definitely find like-minded individuals on Mastodon.
A recent study investigated the migration of top-cited scientists to Mastodon and found that while the number of users is still relatively small, the platform has the potential to become an increasingly more important tool for scientific communication and collaboration.
Best Practices for Using Mastodon in a Scientific Context
Using Mastodon in a scientific context requires maintaining high standards of professionalism and ethical conduct. Since users are essentially responsible for moderating the platform’s content, it is important to promote scientific rigour and maintain the integrity of any research shared and discussed within. Therefore, scientists and academics should be mindful of their behaviour on Mastodon and ensure that they adhere to ethical standards in their interactions with others.
Keep these additional tips in mind to ensure best practice when using Mastodon:
- Maintain professionalism, courtesy and ethical conduct.
- Avoid misinformation and promote scientific rigour whenever using Mastodon for scientific communication. Pseudoscience and unfounded claims can undermine the credibility of scientific research and lead to misinterpretations of data. Always prioritise the accuracy and validity of your work when sharing it on Mastodon.
- Be aware of the potential for dis- and misinformation on social media generally and take steps to combat it if possible.
- Balance personal and professional use of Mastodon to help ensure that scientific communication remains rigorous and accurate.
As we’ve seen, Mastodon can be a valuable tool for enhancing discussion of research and promoting scientific communication. Greater control over content and heightened privacy settings stand out as features that allow academics to carry out discussion precisely and respectfully.
While Twitter has been a popular platform for scientific communication in the past, the benefits of Mastodon, as well as its growing popularity, mark it out as an increasingly important space in the research world. So, take our guide as a starting point, and dive into the wonderful world of Mastodon!
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Keep striving, researchers! ✨