We need new communication infrastructure for academia

Having attended a great conference and scientific networking event last week, I came to realize again the dysfunctional, scattered nature of today’s communication infrastructure that even scientists can not escape from.

Let me map out the current reality of sending each other messages: We were invited to a conference with over 200 researchers. To maintain communication among the participants during the event, the organizers decided to maintain a conference app, based on a solution from a random German company nobody had ever heard of. This app contained a chat service that seemed to work, and some people used it. The app also sent out important conference notifications. During the first day of the conference, most of the younger researchers joined a Whatsapp group for organizing bar trips in the evening. Some of us had to install the app first, some of us refused to do so. I’m one of those who refused, partly because Whatsapp requires me to hand over my whole address book to them, which I’m not willing to do without my contacts’ consent. I got some participants’ phone numbers and stayed in touch with them over Signal or SMS. Most of the long-term connections, I believe, were established through the exchange of good old business cards with printed email-addresses on them, that now fill my desk. I guess in a couple of cases, people connected through mutual follows on LinkedIn, Twitter or ResearchGate, if both parties used these platforms. Do you realize just how many apps and platforms one needs to take care of, just to keep in touch with a handful of scientists? What a mess! It is no wonder that conferences are so crucial for science, since they seem to be the only way to get everyone on the same boat for a few days.

As a researcher, I try to maintain a clean and structured desktop – both physically, as well as on my phones and PC’s home screen. However, just every morning’s “keeping up to date” nowadays involves checking your email, possibly opening LinkedIn, Twitter, ResearchGate, checking your Whatsapp, and maybe your working group’s slack channel. This chaotic waste of time makes me start my day scatterbrained and annoyed. It doesn’t help that a lot of these places are advertising-infested surveillance hellholes. Further, some of these platforms don’t allow a clear separation between private and academic contacts and thereby facilitate procrastinating. Who of us never suddenly regained consciousness at lunchtime just to realize they must have gotten lured into browsing memes and friends’ vacation pictures about three hours earlier?

I therefore propose to throw most of the old platforms over board and start over new. Thereby it seems natural to me to distinguish different ways of communicating: One the one hand you get in touch with someone to discuss an idea, have a chat or to send a relevant message to a defined group of people. This sort of communication is often covered by instant messaging apps like Slack, Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, LinkedIn’s chat function (is anyone actually using that one?) and so on. This sort of communication is what I’ll cover in this article. There will be a follow-up text that discusses types of communication without a clear intent or without a clearly specified audience, like it happens on twitter, ResearchGate, and other more social-network-style platforms.

When it comes to that first-mentioned type of communication, I see a couple of requirements scientists should demand from their infrastructure:

Frictionless, structured use

The system should be as simple and clean as possible, not adding unnecessary complexity to our work. Contacting or calling someone should be as easy as walking to the office next door. Incoming messages should be presented in a structured way. This includes a possibility to separate e.g. private contacts from students attending your course and your academic work group. Such a separation could be provided through different identities or by a good UI. Of course, the system should work with smartphones as well as on desktop PCs.

Free from ads

Ad-freeness is not only a direct consequence from the requirement before, but ads and scientific virtues also directly contradict each other. We’re constantly trying to reflect and mitigate the effects that unconscious biases have on our world-view. Being spammed by marketers who tell us which product is the most healthy and which party we should support does the exact opposite. Just remember how the tobacco industry corrupted the scientific discourse in the 20th century by consistently promoting other causes for lung cancer.

Independence from commercial gatekeepers

Yeah, that capitalism thing: If a commercial actor acts as a gatekeeper, they will either disappear or find a way to monetize their status to the disadvantage of their users (i.e. yours). That might happen through ads or by charging you excessive fees, while you are stuck with them. We’ve already made that mistake in scientific publishing.

Free from surveillance

Researchers need to communicate in a secure and private manner. A guaranteed private channel is important to be able to freely speak from your mind. Other researchers stealing your genius, unique ideas should only be an afterthought, given that in some countries, critical scientists are targeted by state oppression. You never know who wins the next election in your country (Sorry, Italy!). Secure end-to-end encryption should therefore be a requirement.

A clear path to establish a global standard

All these efforts require a certain consensus among scientists and scientific institutions. We lose the “Frictionless” property if communication happens on 5 different channels, and we risk excluding those who for the sake of some peace of mind didn’t follow up on the most recent app.

Alright, given all these requirements, I claim that coffee breaks at your favorite conference are the best we can do so far. They are globally recognized, more or less ad-free, frictionless, and if you want privacy you can whisper. The only gatekeeper is that you should better like coffee – and be able to pay the conference fee. However, having hundreds of people fly around the globe to attend a talk and have a cup of coffee together doesn’t scale too well.

Email is another approach. By its concept of federation (please remember this word for a second), universities can host their own servers and keep in touch with the outside world at the same time. Emancipation from gatekeepers? Yes. Global standard? You bet! However, email is not exactly frictionless, since it’s missing a bunch of modern features. “Calling someone” usually means sending a calendar invite to a Zoom call 3 days later. And neither Email nor Zoom is a trustworthy medium of communication.

However, the federated concept of email finally leads me to my proposal: Let’s use the matrix protocol. Just like email, matrix is an open, decentralized network, where universities can host their own server. The good thing is, it’s not email. It’s an extensible communication protocol that allows instant messaging inside and between institutions, and even voice and video calls. I’ve seen organizations that successfully replaced their slack and zoom with matrix and temporarily an embedded jitsi, since native group video calls are still under a bit of development. Matrix is end-to-end encrypted by default, even in group chats. Possibly one the best features is the possibility to bridge. If you still got some colleagues in that one old slack channel, just connect it to your matrix server! Depending on the platform you are bridging to, this might be easier or harder, but there is plenty of available bots and bridge-applications that may help you. My client, Element supports the spaces feature, so I can easily group contacts into “Facebook friends”, “Computer club folks”, “Academic contacts”, and “The slack channels from that NGO I work with”. Element is developed with a high pace, but feels very stable and ready for everyday use. Even though there is a bunch of features I’d still like to see implemented – which I could help with, it’s all open source – I love using it.

Back to the conference use case: How simple would it be to just join the channels #notifications:coolconference.org and #barhopping:coolconference.org with the app and account you already got from your home university? And in case you forgot to exchange business cards with that one combinatorics guy from XYZ university you had beers with last night, you could just find their handle @combinatoricsguy:xyz.edu in one of the channels and use it to keep in touch with that person. That’s exactly what matrix allows!

Well, one question remains: Can we make matrix a global standard for scientific communication and avoid xkcd’s infamous “15 completing standards” problem? I think a good part of that work is done by bridges: You can gradually move organizations to matrix by bridging to their current solution. Further, if we convinced a couple of universities to host matrix servers and give accounts to all their students and personnel, we’d have a huge user base all at once! Some universities and schools already run an instance! The German health system and the French government adopted it. So, even if I can’t really provide a waterproof argument here, I think if one protocol has the most potential and momentum, while fulfilling my outlined criteria, it would clearly be matrix. Universities were once considered avant-garde when they hosted some of the first email servers in their data centers. I think, adopting matrix would be a sensible opportunity to prove that, once again. Give it a go, text me on matrix!

This article has been written with a scientist audience in mind, but most of it equally applies to non-academic organizations as well. So if you are a commercial enterprise, a public administration or just a group of friends, and you’re currently stuck with slack or facebook or whatever, I hope I gave you some arguments to consider switching matrix.

What’s next

Well, matrix obviously doesn’t help you discover new interesting publications like ResearchGate does (Actually there is an RSS bot you could hook up to arXiv, but that’s not the point). It won’t help you use your #followerpower to make your current problem go somewhat viral and receive some input from random folks on the internet. Apps focused on instant messaging don’t provide a neat way to “connect” with someone, view their profile and receive updates on their latest works. I will handle these more social-network-style use-cases in another post. I could well imagine taking some inspiration in the decentralized twitter clone mastodon, the fediverse and it’s supporting ActivityPub protocol. Should we interbreed ORCID and google scholar with ActivityPub? I’ll have to think about it, but feel free to text me your ideas. See you soon!