‘Open squared’ – learning the lingo

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Weller’s (2014) account of the history of open learning aligns it with the free and open source software movement.  However, it concerns me that this connection is overlooked when phrases like “open technologies” (Weller, 2014, p.94), “open tools” (Cronin, 2017, p.8) and “open online spaces” (Perryman, 2023, Step 2.13) are used.  In these contexts, the word ‘open’ conveys the idea of being outside of the physical and virtual boundaries of an educational institution, rather than the licensing of the software.  Examples of open educational practices (OEP), such as the use of Twitter [now X] (Weller, 2023), link the practices with Big Tech’s “killer apps” which have been associated with data exploitation and neglect of privacy amongst other abuses (Fowler, 2021).  The main exception to this is blog sites built on WordPress 🙂 .

In addition, resources for educators (for example, Ritter, 2021; Salmon, 2014) ignore ethical considerations in their guides on using social media services for different educational purposes.  The only nod to ethics I have been able to locate is the inclusion of Security and Privacy as the final S in the SECTIONS model designed to help inform the choice of technology (Bates, 2022, section 10.9).

This really troubles me. Do I really have to use Big Tech’s services in order to be an open educational practitioner and open learner?  Should I really expect ‘learners’ to use those services in order to connect with and interact with me?  Do we really need to use the same platforms to socialise with family and friends; educate; and, learn?  Are these spaces actually conducive to learning with all the noisy marketing and monetised posts?

Those who know me will have noticed that I have never been on Facebook, have practically stopped using X (formerly Twitter) and withdrawn from using WhatsApp.  This can be perceived as anti-social – making it harder to find me and talk to me.  The choice was made for a number of reasons – data privacy, security and being tired of the marketing and influencing that worm their way into my feed.  It’s also an ethical stance – I really don’t want Big Tech to be so, well, BIG!  But this stance does mean I miss comaraderie, bits of news and the opportunity to widen my personal network.  Is there another way?

I would like to see a future that I think of as ‘open squared’, where the open education movement re-connects with the free software community through adoption of federated social media services.  There is already evidence of migration of micro-bloggers from Twitter to Mastodon (Zia et al., 2023).  It is a shift that is in its early stages.  However, there are some suggestions that, in the longer term, it could be better for the environment (Laser et al., no date).  It also opens up possibilities to help economies in the Global South if fair trade software principles (Were et al., 2020) are followed.

However, this isn’t easy territory to navigate with ‘regular’ IT knowledge.  Some of the words I have used above are not familiar to people outside of the tech industry (and those living with those in the tech industry 😉 ).

Here’s my attempt to demystify – or at least explain how I currently understand it.

Centralised social media services vs federated social media services

Centralised social media services are those that are run by a single organisation (Flatline agency, no date).  The single organisation controls how the service is used and experienced, for example they can decide how much can be viewed without setting up an account and users’ terms and conditions.  They also decide on charges for premium accounts or accessing content en masse via an application programme interface (API).  The dominant social media services are centralised and run by Big Tech companies, such as Meta, X and Google.

In contrast, federated services can have multiple organisers and service providers.  The most widely used federated service is email – this is why it is possible to send and receive emails with people who use different internet service providers.  There are also a set of interconnected social platforms enabling microblogging, photo and video sharing.

A short animation is available on Fediverse.info which explains the downsides of centralised services and the benefits of federated services.  It uses the idea of different planets to represent each service provider.  With centralised services, you can only communicate with people on your own planet, with federated services there are protocols in place so that you can communicate with people on different planets.  It all works on an open protocol called ActivityPub.

But there are some blurry lines here, very recently Meta have caused controversy by incorporating ActivityPub into Threads.  This means that users will be able to choose to follow Threads posts from other federated services like Mastodon.  However, in choosing to ‘follow’ one or more Threads accounts, you may still need to sign up to a whole tonne of terms and conditions decided by Meta.  So, sadly, it is possible for centralised, big tech to try and exploit the fediverse and catch out unaware users.

Proprietary vs free (libre) vs open source software

Comparisons can be drawn between software licenses and licensing used for other creative works.  A proprietary license is the equivalent of full copyright (Wikipedia, 2023a) and is usually closed source in that the code is not released to the public (Wikipedia, 2023b).

In comparison, open and free licenses grant different rights to users in the same way that different forms of creative commons licenses do (Wikipedia, 2023a).  The terms ‘open source’ software and ‘free (libre)’ software are often used interchangeably or together in phrases like ‘free and open source’.  However, free software is based on a full set of freedoms – the right to run the software, “change and study it, and to redistribute it with or without changes” (Stallman, 2022).  It is like the least restrictive creative commons license (CC-BY-SA).  Furthermore, free (libre) software associates itself with a set of ethical values such as freedom and justice.  As Stallman (2022) explains, open source licenses may restrict one or more of the freedoms reflecting some sort of middle ground.

Many people are not always this precise when they use the term ‘open’ and, as Masson (2014) outlines, companies do engage in ‘openwashing’.  This means you really do have to dig to identify how source code is actually licensed.

Being a product vs being a customer

In the UK television comedy quiz ‘Would I lie to you’, comedian David Mitchell is asked to convince other contestants that he does not use WhatsApp.  When one of the other contestants points out WhatsApp is free, he responds “That’s what they say then isn’t it, if it’s free, you are not the customer, you are the product” (BBC, 2023, 02:20).

According to Quote Investigator (2017), the point was initially made about commercial television in the 1970s.  However, it has become a particular concern with online services, given the potential for data harvesting, algorithm-driven ‘personalisation’ and bot-driven feeds.  It has been identified that these practices are not just used for influencing purchasing choices but manipulating and shaping culture and politics (Gray, 2023; Hodge, 2019; Taylor, 2023).

Writing in 2017, Kulkarni predicted that social media services could introduce different payment tiers to allow users to pay for an advertisement-free level of service.  This could help those users who can afford to pay but creates an inequitable experience.

More recently, the 2023 European Union (EU) Digital Services Act introduced a requirement for social media services to include features to allow EU users to select algorithm-free feeds.  In some cases, social media services have opted to introduce these features globally (Lomas, 2023) but this is not guaranteed.  Countries in the Global South have less power to introduce regulation against disinformation (Takhshid, 2022), which raises the potential for different exposure to disinformation and algorithm-driven campaigns in different parts of the world.

In contrast to the commercial model, there are some social media services that are run by non-profit organisations and are funded by user donations, sponsorship or grants.  These services are committed to avoiding advertisements and algorithms.  Free (libre) software can also benefit from unpaid enthusiasts developing features and identifying, or fixing, bugs.


Bates, A.W. (2022) Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning, Third Edition. Available at: https://pressbooks.bccampus.ca/teachinginadigitalagev3m/ (Accessed: 1 August 2023).

BBC (2023) David Mitchell rants about WhatsApp for three minutes | Would I lie to you?  Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JjCzkzYaFlg (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Cronin, C. (2017) ‘Openness and praxis: Exploring the use of open educational practices in higher education’, International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 18(5). Available at: https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v18i5.3096.

Fediverse.info (no date) What is the fediverse?  Available at https://fediverse.info/ (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Flatline agency (no date) What is decentralized social media? Pros and Cons.  Available at: https://www.flatlineagency.com/blog/what-is-decentralized-social-media (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Fowler, S. (2022) Big Tech’s Dark Side: Killer apps, abs, and acqs.  Available at: https://poole.ncsu.edu/thought-leadership/article/big-techs-dark-side-killer-apps-abs-and-acqs/ (Accessed: 7 October 2023).

Gray, C. (2023) Algorithms are moulding and shaping out politics. Here’s how to avoid being gamed.  Available at: https://theconversation.com/algorithms-are-moulding-and-shaping-our-politics-heres-how-to-avoid-being-gamed-201402 (Accessed: 4 October 2023)

Hodge, K. (2019) It it’s free online, you are the product.  Available at: https://theconversation.com/if-its-free-online-you-are-the-product-95182 (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Kulkarni, C. (2017) 11 ways social media will evolve in the future.  Available at: https://www.entrepreneur.com/science-technology/11-ways-social-media-will-evolve-in-the-future/293454 (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Laser, S., Pasek, A., Sørensen, E., Hogan, M., Ojala, M., Fehrenbacher, J., Hepach, M., Çelik, L. and Kumar, K. (no date) The environmental footprint of social media hosting: Tinkering with Mastodon.  Available at: https://easst.net/easst-review/41-3/the-environmental-footprint-of-social-media-hosting-tinkering-with-mastodon/ (Accessed: 7 October 2023).

Lomas, N. (2023) All hail the new EU law that lets social media users quiet quit the algorithm.  Available at: https://techcrunch.com/2023/08/25/quiet-qutting-ai/?guccounter=2 (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Masson, P. (2013) Openwashing: adopter beware.  Available at: https://opensource.com/business/14/12/openwashing-more-prevalent (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Perryman, L.-A. (2023) ‘Opening up education’, H880 Technology Enhanced Learning: Foundations and Futures. Available at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/h880-opening-up-education/5/todo/162412 (Accessed: 7 October 2023).

Quote Investigator (2017) You’re not the customer; you’re the product.  Available at: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/07/16/product/ (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Ritter, K. (2021) Selecting the right EdTech tool. Available at: https://talktechwithme.com/resources/selecting-the-right-edtech-tool/ (Accessed: 1 August 2023).

Salmon, G. (2014) Social media for learning design.  Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRX8d6cFoFI (Accessed: 7 October 2023).

Stallman, R. (2022) Why open source misses the point of free software.  Available at: https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.en.html (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Takhshid, Z. (2022) ‘Regulating social media in the Global South’ (Abstract), Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law, 24(1).  Available at: https://scholarship.law.vanderbilt.edu/jetlaw/vol24/iss1/1/ (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Taylor, J. (2023) Bots on X worse than ever according to analysis of 1m tweets during first Republican primary debate.  Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2023/sep/09/x-twitter-bots-republican-primary-debate-tweets-increase (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Weller, M. (2014) The battle for open. London, UK: Ubiquity Press. Available at: https://doi.org/10.5334/bam.

Weller, M. (2023) ‘Week 4: Open now’, The Online Educator. Available at: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/the-online-educator/16/steps/1673400 (Accessed: 7 October 2023).

Were, P., Madeley, J. and Munsell, M. (2020) ‘Fair Trade Software: Empowering people, enabling economies’, Journal of Fair Trade, 2(1).  Available at: https://www.scienceopen.com/hosted-document?doi=10.13169/jfairtrade.2.1.0004 (Accessed: 7 October 2023).

Wikipedia (2023a) Proprietary software.  Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proprietary_software (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Wikipedia (2023b) Comparison of open-source and closed-source software.  Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_open-source_and_closed-source_software (Accessed: 4 October 2023).

Zia, H.B., He, J., Raman, A., Castro, I., Sastry, N. and Tyson, G. (2023) ‘Flocking to Mastodon: Tracking the great Twitter migration’.  Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/2302.14294 (Accessed: 7 October 2023).



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