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BBC on Mastodon: experimenting with distributed and decentralised social media

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Tristan Ferne


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As the social media landscape ebbs and flows, the team at BBC Research & Development are researching social technologies and exploring possibilities for the BBC. One part of our work is to establish a BBC presence in the distributed collection of social networks known as the Fediverse, a collection of social media applications all linked together by common protocols. The most common software used in this area is Mastodon, a Twitter-like social networking service with around 2 million active monthly users. We are now running an experimental BBC Mastodon server at https://social.bbc where you can follow some of the BBC’s social media accounts, including BBC R&D, Radio 4 and 5 Live. We hope to be able to add more accounts from other areas of the BBC at some point.

The BBC on Mastodon: experimenting with distributed and decentralised social media

BBC social media accounts on Mastodon:

@BBCRD@social.bbc

@BBC5Live@social.bbc

@BBCRadio4@social.bbc

@BBCTaster@social.bbc

@Connected_Studio@social.bbc

@BBC_News_Labs@social.bbc

Mastodon and the Fediverse

Mastodon is a “federated” social network. Federated social networks aren’t controlled by one organisation, federation means that anyone can run a server and host users and each server can offer its own moderation and membership rules, but all the servers can connect to each other. This model is more like email where you can email anyone, but as an individual, you choose which email provider you want to use.

An overview illustration titled 'The Many Branches of the Fediverse' - this is a cartoon illustration of a tree, with each of the branches or parts of the tree populated by online services that work in a federated manner. There is a part of the tree for Social Networking containing services like Mastodon, one of the branches is for multimedia and contains services like Peer Tube and Pixelfed, and for writing services like WordPress and Drupal. The roots of the tree contain the ActivityPub protocol, showing that these services are all flowing and are enabled by this.

Federated social networks, or the Fediverse, offer a model for future development that aligns with our own work to support a public service internet and our previous work on decentralised data. The principles of the Fediverse, with an emphasis on local control, quality content, and social value, are far more aligned with our public purposes than those of avowedly commercial networks like Threads or Twitter. Other public service and non-profit organisations already have a presence there, from the Dutch government to Wikimedia to the EU.

We’ve set up a Mastodon server for the BBC to publish content in the Fediverse. Initially, our server hosts this selection of BBC social media accounts, where we’ll be publishing content just like we do on other social platforms:

@BBCRD@social.bbc

@BBC5Live@social.bbc

@BBCRadio4@social.bbc

@BBCTaster@social.bbc

@Connected_Studio@social.bbc

@BBC_News_Labs@social.bbc

Unlike most Mastodon servers where you can sign up for a personal account, we’re only using this instance to host BBC accounts; it’s a place for us to publish in the Fediverse. If you have a Mastodon (or other ActivityPub) account from another server, then you can easily follow our accounts.

We’re using social.bbc as the domain, so you can be sure these accounts are genuinely from the BBC. And by linking to and from the BBC’s website, we have verified our identity on Mastodon.

Challenges

As a large, high profile, public service organisation, we’ve had to work through a fair number of issues to get this far and we’ve had advice and support from several teams across the BBC.

Explaining the federated model can be a challenge as people are much more familiar with the centralised model of ownership. We’ve had to answer questions like “Are we running our own social network?” (well, we’re kind of hosting a small section of a social network) and “Are we hosting a user’s content?” (well, we don’t allow users to create accounts or post from our server, but they can reply to our posts from their own servers, and then their posts will appear next to ours and then they might be stored on our server and it all gets quite complicated).

The latter question leads on to moderation. Although we will only host BBC accounts, there will be replies from other people to our posts. What is our responsibility for moderation here? When the BBC hosts comments on our own website, as on some of our news and sports stories, we moderate these according to our guidelines. Where we post on third-party social media platforms we will keep an eye on any replies and take appropriate action where necessary (such as reporting a comment to the third-party) but we also expect the third-party to have some centralised moderation in place. Because it is a decentralised service, there is no central Mastodon moderation team that we can point to, instead all Mastodon servers are responsible for their own moderation. Mastodon allows the administrators to add a content warning, remove posts, or even block all posts from another server, and many instances are effective in moderating troublesome content from their users. We think this is an acceptable risk and will apply the BBC’s social media moderation rules to any replies to our posts where we can.

You might be able to see from the above why we chose to make this a BBC-only server and not host user accounts.

An experiment

This is an experiment – we will run it for 6 months and then decide whether and how to continue.

We aim to learn how much value it has provided and how much work and cost is involved. Does it reach enough people for the effort we need to put in? Are there risks or benefits from the federated model, with no centralised rules or moderation and no filtering or sorting algorithms? We’re learning as we go, and we’ll write about what we discover in the hope that it might be useful for others. The BBC will continue its other social media activity in the usual places.

Looking ahead, could we move beyond Mastodon to other ActivityPub applications for publishing content? And would this provide us with some insulation from the risks that might be created as other social media platforms continue to change and evolve? And will large, planet-scale social media platforms persist or are they gradually disappearing? What are the alternatives and what will we have in 10 years time?

If you have a Mastodon account already, then please follow us – https://social.bbc/@BBCRD – and let us know what you think. If you don’t, then you can learn more about joining Mastodon.

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