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Public Broadcasters of Europe, Let's All Start Microblogging

19 March 2024
Public Broadcasters of Europe, Let's All Start Microblogging

In this guest post, Alexander Plaum, Innovation Manager at Deutsche Welle (DW), writes about his team's exceptionally positive experience with microblogging in the Fediverse. He also explains why all public broadcasting professionals should try out Mastodon (and other decentralized social media).

Let me start with a radically honest, potentially demotivating remark: Mastodon isn't what Twitter used to be in its heyday. Mastodon doesn't have a massive amount of users (yet); most VIPs and influencers don't bother to maintain an account. Which is why going viral in the Fediverse probably won't put you in a news bulletin – or spawn a big debate. Furthermore, Mastodon isn't that easy to get into. There's quite a bit of documentation you should check before joining, the UX/UI clearly has room for improvement, and the community can be a little geeky and smug at times.

Nevertheless, Mastodon is an excellent, momentous platform. It's a new kind of online communication channel, with an alternative structure, a clear democratic vision, and just enough impact. My colleagues at DW Innovation and I finally gave it a chance in October 2023 – and that turned out to be one of our best communication decisions in the last decade.

DW Innovation Social Media

At this point, I should probably provide some more info about our team: DW Innovation is an R&D unit at DW, we're dedicated to exploring "emerging technologies and their impact on journalism, media, and audiences". That means we've always been part of a rather special community – a community that took a heavy hit when Elon Musk took over Twitter. You know what happened, so I can fast-forward to the day we realized our old account was indeed left compromised: with little reach, little purpose, and an uncertain future. 

As a result, we decided to keep a low profile on X (the platform's new name), step up our game on LinkedIn – and prepared for a launch on Mastodon.

Working with minimum social media resources and an MVP mindset, we quickly discarded the idea of setting up our own instance (or joining the ARD server under development then), and instead just set up a regular account on That also proved to be a good idea.

The platform, the network, the protocol

Before explaining how and why we've been having a good time over on, let me also give you a general idea of what the platform/network is about – and what sets it apart.

First and foremost, Mastodon is a piece of open source microblogging software. But it would be significantly less interesting without ActivityPub, an open, decentralized social networking protocol. Making use of both the blogging tool and the protocol, anybody can set up an instance and start their own community. Of course, it's also possible to just pick one of the many existing instances (like we did) and start a channel there. 

Now all those instances have their own rules and features. They exist separately, they are decentralized – but they are also connected. This is called the "Fediverse" approach, which also includes other services (e.g. alternatives to Instagram or YouTube) and makes sure you can interact with people just about everywhere.

ActivityPub has been standardized by the W3C and allows for neat little features like verified channels/profiles, automated posting of content from media libraries (which is a lot like RSS), or the automatic mirroring of other channels. There's also the killer feature of having ZERO "check out this drastic content" algorithms, making the Fediverse experience a very relaxed one: You just browse, and search and filter – and curate your timeline as you wish.

Enough about the tech, let's check out the people of the Fediverse.

The community

Needless to say, it's hard to put general labels on a highly branched community of 14+ million people on umpteen instances, but if the experience of our ARD colleagues (who run some pretty big accounts) and our own are any indication, it's a pretty progressive crowd. Progressive as in: pro-democracy, pro-human rights, pro-freedom of expression, and pro-transparency. A lot of Mastodoners also seem to be very tech-savvy (or geeky), and – as an NDR social media manager famously said – "nobody really cares about football." 

Even though some users tend to be cheeky, sarcastic, and very critical, the general atmosphere is civilized, relaxed, and very friendly. There seem to be very few trolls, which is why even admins of ARD flagship accounts told me they were able to turn off automatic blockers. Many servers in the Fediverse actually greet users with rules like "no racism, no sexism, no harassment" or "no dogpiling, no doxxing, no incitement of violence". That's a far cry from Twitter/X.

Another interesting aspect: According to comments monitored by us and other ARD users, Mastodoners appreciate manual curation and somewhat irregular social media activities: "Don't spam us with automated posts".

What we have here is a very interesting (and relevant) niche.

@dw_innovation stats and insights

So what is that DW Innovation gets out of using Mastodon? In a nutshell, I'd say: a very successful new channel, a lot of visibility, and the chance to tap into a smart crowd. Here's a couple of stats and bit of background info for you:

A mere 36 hours after setting up the account, we hit 1000 followers. In less than a week, we were at 2000. 3.5 months into the test run, in January 2024, that number had doubled again: 4000 followers. And the account is still growing, albeit at a slower pace. It took us years to get that kind of traction on Twitter (remember: we're an R&D team, not a newsroom).

What's more important than the number of followers is, of course, the number of interactions. In that department, Mastodon outshines everything we've ever accomplished on the plummeted blue bird platform: Basically every toot gets faved and/or boosted, usually several times. Two-digit interactions are the norm. Three-digit interactions (in a four-digit community!) are not that unusual. And we get a lot of replies: comments, questions, jokes – and lots of insights.

Two favorite interactions of mine: When the community supported one of our dev teams with pro tips on a pretty exotic geolocation tool issue. And when the community came to our defense and started a media literacy discussion after one user had claimed DW was basically the same as RT.

Of course, we've been putting a bit of brainpower and elbow grease into running the account and interacting with the Mastodon crowd, but it's all very manageable and a lot of fun.

Public broadcasters on Mastodon

Even though Twitter/X has been in drastic decline for a while now and Mastodon readily available as a democratic, bottom-up alternative (let's discuss Bluesky and Threads at some other point), public broadcasters are still reluctant about taking a chance and pivoting to the big M. That's actually one of the reasons I'm writing this post. The thing is: I don't exactly understand where that reluctance comes from. Not only is there a sustainable platform with a sizable audience looking for quality content, there are also a couple of EBU members who're doing pretty well:

The BBC runs a couple of accounts with more than 10k followers on their own instance, Germany's flagship news program tagesschau amassed almost 50k fans in less than a year (let me know if you want to have a chat with the admin), but there's also brand new channels by smaller broadcasters like the Netherland's NPO Radio 1.

When you dig a little deeper, you'll also find intriguing fan projects like ORFfodon (which unofficially fedarates Austria's public service broadcaster) – indicating a clear interest and demand in the platform/network.

The Mastodon Moment

So what are the skeptics waiting for? Everybody has to prepare posts and threads and multimedia soc med content bits anyway – why not put them out on Mastodon? Imho, there's nothing to lose, only a new (rather interesting) audience to gain.

And remember: It's a platform where you call the shots (especially if you join a big, trustworthy instance or set up your own): no punishment by weird algorithms, no unexpected fees, no toxic marketing. Just old school, very sustainable social media. 

"We criticize Twitter, Facebook, and Big Tech all the time – and rightly so", an ARD colleague recently told me. "Now it's time to get in gear and support the alternatives."

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Mastodon is a great addition to the public broadcasting social media portfolio. So go ahead – and sign up today.

Relevant links and documents


Alexander Plaum

Innovation Manager, Deutsche Welle