Twitter is going through a deep governance crisis. In case you’ve been skipping the news, Elon Musk bought Twitter. He initially promised he would take a laissez-faire approach to content moderation and ban only what is prohibited by law. I admit that this made sense to me: while being conscious of the harms of unmoderated social media, I believed that social media companies were overstepping their role as custodians of our public sphere. But Musk’s actions were very much the opposite from his original vision: he banned an account posting (publicly accessible) coordinates for his private jet, then banned the accounts of journalists from outlets like The New York Times and The Intercept who reported on this. He then practically banned mentions of competitors. Throughout this, he made arbitrary referendums on content policy on his personal account through “polls” (how many of these poll votes are from actual people and not bots is unclear). This is disappointing, but also unsurprising: the leaders of platforms like Twitter can make mostly unilateral calls about content moderation, so this is business as usual in our social media landscape.
This might seem like drama that concerns mostly our Silicon Valley neighbors, but it very much concerns us all. We rely on social media platforms like Twitter to share information with our peers, understand what is going on in our communities and in the world, and express ourselves. Twitter has become a crucial piece of our infrastructure for communication, the same way the telephone network and highways serve an important role in connecting us. When Twitter is down, it is impossible to go about doing some of our daily tasks as usual. We need communication infrastructure with accountability and sustainability — otherwise, we are at risk of arbitrary and opaque governance that goes against the principles of a free university. An answer to this: Stanford must open an official server on Mastodon, a nonprofit, open-source social media network.
In the past years, academics have been using Twitter as an infrastructure for sharing resources and ideas. When Twitter’s long-term stability was challenged and its moderation policies seemed to be unpredictable, many scholars started questioning their dependence on Twitter as an infrastructure. The reaction of many was to self-exile to Mastodon. Mastodon works like a decentralized Twitter. Instead of having just one centralized platform, Mastodon consists of many different communities, called servers. There is no “main” Mastodon server: you can choose to join any server you like, and you can follow users from other servers. The server you join determines where your posts are hosted, and who moderates your posts: the administrators of each server can make the call of what accounts and content are banned.
It’s not clear how a simple move from Twitter to any old Mastodon server is a positive move for most Stanford researchers. Without a doubt, our dependence on Twitter is bad: we cannot depend on Elon Musk’s goodwill to communicate about our research. But the way that many of Mastodon’s servers are currently laid out is also problematic. In truth, the governance of Mastodon servers is not much more transparent than Twitter’s: moderators make decisions largely opaquely, and rules are not decided upon collectively. Also, we need our infrastructure to be robust: a highway isn’t too useful if it breaks down unpredictably. While Mastodon’s distributed nature ensures that the network persists despite one server’s failure, users were unable to use Mastodon’s most popular server after it suffered a DDoS attack recently.
That’s why Stanford should make its own server — officially run and hosted by Stanford Information Technology in much the same way other university internet services are. The proposal might sound eccentric, but in reality, Stanford already takes care of a large part of our community’s information infrastructure. The Stanford email service is an example of this: all Stanford affiliates have access to a @stanford.edu email. Of course, there are other service providers out there, like Gmail, that provide access to email for free. But Stanford’s email service ensures us that the infrastructure will be there in the long term and that we do not depend too much on the strategic decisions of a private company.
Stanford’s Mastodon server should only allow Stanford affiliates to create accounts, the same way that only Stanford affiliates can get @stanford.edu emails. Thanks to Mastodon’s decentralized network, this would still mean that users of Stanford’s Mastodon server could read posts from users in other networks and engage with them. This is the way that MIT’s Mastodon server works: I could only create my Mastodon account on mastodon.mit.edu because I got my master’s degree from there last year, yet I can follow users from most Mastodon servers.
And like most Stanford infrastructure, Stanford’s Mastodon server should be maintained through paid employees. MIT’s server is run by students, who volunteer their time to maintain public digital infrastructure. While this work can be extremely appreciated, it is not quite the approach that Stanford should take. If social media is part of academic life, then those running this piece of infrastructure should be trained professionals, not overworked students.
Opening any space of exchange on the internet inevitably leads to the question of what can be said, and who will be in charge of enforcing this moderation. Conflicts around acceptable speech at Stanford are generally judged against its honor code through an intentionally slow process. Social media happens at a faster pace, and, as many communication scholars have shown throughout the years, so do its harms. The solution to this could be to create a content moderation council, formed by faculty and students, that could decide the rules and procedures for adapting the university’s honor code to the context of social media.
Stanford’s communicative infrastructure cannot depend on the judgment of social media companies or volunteer maintainers of servers, and social media is too important for our university to leave on the hands of profit-making enterprises or well-meaning nonprofits. As more members of Stanford’s community move to Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter, the administration should provide the resources to ensure that this does not jeopardize scholars’ ability to express themselves freely. Through collaboration, Stanford can create the digital public infrastructure we need for our intellectual life.
Tomás Guarna is a PhD student in Communication at Stanford University, where he is a Knight-Hennessy Scholar.