Lab Platform Governance, Media and Technology (PGMT)

Session 4: Robert W. Gehl – From Codes of Conduct to the Digital Covenant: Mastodon and the Struggle for Ethical Social Media

Time and Date: October 24th, 2023, 15:00 CEST, Online

Registration via this form.

You’ve done it. I’ve done it. We’ve all quickly and impatiently clicked through long, legalese-drenched Terms of Service agreements when we signed up for corporate social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter. As important as those documents are for governance of social media users, no one reads them. Terms of Service reflect a highly specified, lengthy, contractual relationship between you, the sole User, and a massive, world-spanning corporation. They are lopsided agreements meant to ensure users consent to behavioral advertising, tracking, and algorithmic manipulation.

Contrast that with what Diana Zulli and I have called a “digital covenant” relationship: short documents called “codes of conduct” that bring about an emergent thin set of ethical network values. We find such a relationship on Mastodon, the free and open source, federated alternative to Twitter. Drawing on interviews with software developers and social media admins and moderators, this presentation will trace the history of the digital covenant, from its roots in queer, trans, and feminist technology activism in the early 2010s to its current implementation on a global scale on the fediverse, the network of federated social media sites. We will explore their use in controversial federation decisions, both in terms of making connections between servers and in terms of blocking connections. We’ll also look to the future and consider how the digital covenant can be expanded.

This work is based on my current book project, Move Slowly and Build Bridges: Mastodon, the Fediverse, and the Struggle for Ethical Social Media, under contract with Oxford University Press.

Dr. Robert W. Gehl is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at York University and Ontario Research Chair in Digital Governance for Social Justice. He is a Fulbright scholar and award-winning author whose research focuses on contemporary communication technologies. Before joining York University as an Ontario Research Chair of Digital Governance for Social Justice, he held an endowed research chair at Louisiana Tech. He has published over two dozen articles in journals such as New Media & Society, Communication Theory, Social Media + Society, and Media, Culture and Society. His books include Reverse Engineering Social Media, Weaving the Dark Web and Social Engineering, published in 2022 by MIT Press. He also has published a co-edited collection of essays, Socialbots and Their Friends.

About the Series 

This talk is part of the series Behind the Scenes – Conversations on Empirical Platform Governance Research that invites scholars in this field to share their experiences and views, fostering  community exchange about how we can study platform governance in this challenging context. It is hosted by the Lab “Platform Governance, Media, and Technology” (PGMT) at the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKI), University of Bremen, and the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies, University of Groningen.


Please register via this form shortly with an email-address for the full series or this event only, so that we can share the meeting link with you.