Inspired by what3words, I want to share an idea that solves some problems I’ve been thinking about in the context of MoodleNet:
With services that allow users to change usernames and avatars an infinite number of times, how do you know who you’re really talking to?
On decentralised social networks such as Mastodon, users on different instances can have the same username. This is confusing when trying to @ mention someone.
If what3words can describe everywhere on the globe using three words, then we can describe all users of a social network using three emojis.
As I’ve explained before, LessPass (a deterministic password generator) uses emoji triplets to simultaneously obfuscate your password while providing a check that you’ve entered it correctly.
In addition, as my colleague Mayel pointed out when I shared the idea with him, the first emoji of the triplet could indicate which instance you’re on.
As you can see above, I’ve actually already added three emojis next to my username on both Twitter and Mastodon. I think it serves as a really nice, quick, visual indication that you’re dealing with the person you expect.
Note: I’m writing this post on my personal blog as this isn’t an official Moodle pronouncement, just some experimentation.
I’m leading Project MoodleNet, which will be “a new open social media platform for educators, focused on professional development and open content”. There are decisions I have to make, and these need to be based on criteria, prioritisation, etc.
One of the things I’m keen to do with the professional social networking component of Project MoodleNet is to ensure that it’s decentralised. By this I mean that, unlike Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, it won’t be a ‘silo’ of information.
Instead, Project MoodleNet will be federated in a way which allows information to flow between instances. It’s well explained in this article, which includes the following diagram which outlines the technical protocols on which a number of options are based:
As you can see, the ActivityPub protocol is definitely a candidate for the professional social network aspect of Project MoodleNet. Last week it became a W3C recommended standard.
For less technical readers, the upshot of this is that users can send messages, files, and (most importantly) emojis to anyone on any server that uses the ActivityPub protocol. Products and services built upon this protocol may look and feel very different, but all of the data is interoperable.
Mastodon is a social network which was originally built on the OStatus protocol, but which is now also compatible with ActivityPub. I’m a member of the social.coop instance, although there’s no limit on the number of different accounts you can hold on different instances.
Although they have a common basis, you find differences between Mastodon instances. For example, some have a particular focus, meaning that the stream of updates you get from your own instance might be focused on gaming, or education, or LGBT rights. There’s also differences between the kind of languages and content allowed by instances.
No matter which instance you’re on, however, you can follow anyone from any instance. You can see this in the screenshot below.
From left to right:
My ‘Home’ stream is populated with updates from the people and accounts I follow.
The ‘Notifications’ stream works the same as Twitter (replies, favourites, boosts)
‘Local timeline’ is everyone on the same instance as me.
‘Federated timeline’ is everyone’s updates in the Fediverse.
In practice, it’s a lot like TweetDeck (I think on purpose).
I wanted to have access to a testing version of Mastodon to look at the administration and moderation functionality. Paul Greidanus was kind enough to spin up an instance which, for obvious reasons, isn’t federated to the rest of the network.
I closed self-registration and invited some Moodle staff to create an account via a special link. As you can see, it was pretty quiet. That’s OK, however, as I’m really just interested in the moderation and admin functionality.
To access the additional options available as a moderator and/or admin exist in the same place as user settings. It’s a nice touch, and the way that it’s presented makes it easy to focus on what you want to achieve, rather than getting sidetracked with technical stuff.
The audit log shown in the screenshot above is useful, particularly for GDPR compliance, and reporting reasons.
This is also the place where you can generate invitations, which can have a maximum number of uses and/or expire after a certain time. There’s also functionality around blocking email addresses from certain domains from registering.
On the admin side of things, this is where you can configure the public description of the instance, add contact details, and specify the rules and other guidelines.
The thing that interested me most, however, was CUSTOM EMOJIS:
Finally, there’s various technical reports, and queries you can run from a technical point of view.
I have to say that I wasn’t expecting the moderation and admin side of Mastodon to be so… user-friendly. It’s incredibly easy and intuitive to use, although it does mean delving into the code if, say, you want to change the default background colour to orange!
The next thing to do is to experiment with Hubzilla, which is also mentioned on the Venn diagram earlier in this post. It’s important to experiment both technically and with users, and weigh all of these things against the principles that underpin Project MoodleNet.
Back in 2011, when I’d just discovered Open Badges, I led a semester of learning on the concept. Sometimes it’s not enough to play around the edges; you have to jump in with two feet to understand what something’s about. That immersion confirmed my initial thoughts, and I’ve spent the last six years evangelising and advocating for digital credentials based on that particular open standard.
The same was true back in 2007 when I joined Twitter. I thought that this was something revolutionary, something that could not only change the way that professional development was done in schools (I was a classroom teacher at the time) but literally change the world. Unlike Open Badges, of course, Twitter is backed by a for-profit company that floated on the stock exchange a few years ago. It’s a ‘free’ service that requires on advertising to provide shareholder value.
It was easy to forget all that in the early days, as we were giddy with excitement, connecting with like-minded people around the world. Pre-IPO, Twitter seemed like the good guys, being seen as a key tool in people organising to overthrow repressive regimes. In those days, it was easy to use one of a number of Twitter clients, and to route your traffic around the world to avoid censorship. Now, not so much.
While I’m aware that this isn’t the most rigorous of ‘tests’, it did set me off on an interesting path. As you can see at the top right of my results, I came out as favouring Libertarian Socialism. I was surprised, as libertarianism is something I usually explicitly argue against.
I decided to do some digging.
The Wikipedia article for Libertarian Socialism is pretty fascinating and, as you’d expect from that site, sends you off on all kinds of tangents via the numerous links in the text. Given that I had an upcoming transatlantic flight coming up, I decided to make use of Wikipedia’s Book Creator. Within five minutes, I had a 500-page PDF on everything from anarcho-syndicalism to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
To cut a long story short, my current thinking is that Mutualism seems to best describe my thinking. I’m re-reading Proudhon’s What is Property?. He’s a little naive in places, I think, but I like his style.
Anyway, this is all to say that we need to re-decentralise the Web. I wrote a few years ago about the dangers of newsfeeds that are algorithmically-curated by advertising-fuelled multinational tech companies. What we need to do is quickly replace our reliance on the likes of Facebook and Twitter before politicians think that direct digital democracy through these platforms would be a good idea.
So I’m experimenting with Mastodon. It’s not radically different from Twitter in terms of look and feel, but it’s what’s under the hood that’s important. The above image from Aral Balkan outlines his approach to ‘ethical design’ — an approach ensures things look good, but also respects us as human beings.
Decentralised systems based on open standards are really our only hope against Venture Capital-backed ‘software with shareholders’. After all, any promising new startups that aren’t decentralised tend to get gobbled-up by the supermassive incumbents (see WhatsApp, Instagram). But to get to scale — which is important in this case, not for shareholder value, but for viability and network effects — people have to use these new platforms.
So that’s what I’m doing. During May, a month when my Twitter timeline will be full of UK General Election nonesense, I’m using Mastodon. The only things I’ll be posting to Twitter are links to things I’ve written. If you’d like to join me, head here, choose an ‘instance’ (I’m on mastodon.cloud) and sign up. You can then add me: mastodon.cloud/@dajbelshaw. As in the early days of Twitter, one of the easiest ways to find good people to follow is to find ‘nodes’. I’ve found Anil Dash (@anildash) to a good starting point.
I look forward to seeing you there. It’s a learning experience for me, but I’m happy to answer any questions below!