Tŵt – Supporting Bilingual Online Communities

(reposted from August 2018)

Tŵt is a bilingual online social content platform, very similar to Twitter in some ways, and very much not in others. You may well be thinking the same thing I heard a more than a few times during its development; “do we really need another social media platform?” and I hope you’ll read on to see if indeed there might just be a good answer to that question.

First, the similarities.

Tŵt allows anyone to create a member account and post messages up to 500 characters to the network; we call these “Tŵtiau” or “Toots”. These messages can contain #hashtags and links, as well as video and image files. Members can subscribe to other members on the network, and reply to anything in their content feed.

Familiar ground for many, but what makes Tŵt a meaningful alternative?

Technologically the differences are privacy and ownership. Unlike Twitter, Tŵt makes it simple for authors to control who can see their content, who can follow them, and they can completely remove themselves from the network at will. If desired, all content can be retrieved and even transported to a competing service providing it uses the same underlying software.

Philosophically, Tŵt is completely open source and is operated as a non-profit; no advertising, no dues, no fees of any kind. And Tŵt comes with clear guidelines about what is considered unacceptable content.

Tŵt itself is built on a base software called “Mastodon”. This software platform uses open Internet standards to communicate short form messages, and is freely available to all who wish to use it. Mastodon itself was created by an independent software developer Eugen Rochko with the specific aim of creating “smaller, tight-knit communities… less prone to harbouring toxic behaviour.”

This then leads to a federation of “instances” of Mastodon, of which Tŵt is but one. So, while Tŵt itself is a small community, there are over two million Mastodon users on the larger, federated network – opening up access to communities around the world covering a range of topics.

But the big difference is that Tŵt was built from scratch to serve as a bilingual community platform for Wales and the Welsh, at home and abroad. The Mastodon software is now fully available in Welsh or English, as are all the Web interface components, meaning every user is free to consume Tŵt entirely in the language of their choice.

Which leads us to the “why”.

I launched my first technology business in 1996 and have built many sites and applications for both public and private sector, relishing the benefits of universal access to knowledge and the ease for anyone to publish their own content that the Web has brought. However, as a technologist, I have shied away from any major personal use of the various social media platforms, seeking – most likely unsuccessfully – to keep my personal data out of the hands of advertisers, political parties and data aggregators.

Over the years I have built several successful online communities around various topics, and having been introduced to Mastodon I wanted to use the platform to build a contemporary social network that I would personally feel good about using and recommending to others, one that reflects my values and beliefs about community ownership, privacy, and content moderation.

At about the same time I was becoming increasingly aware of the continuing need for Welsh language technology options. I’m a supporter of the Cymraeg 2050 goal and I wondered what I could do to help. Having grown up in South Wales, I tried to picture what a truly bilingual technology platform might look like, not favouring Welsh nor English, but instead reflecting the Wales I know and love, one in which conversations in both languages can live happily side by side.

Especially, I wanted to build something where a Welsh speaker could Tŵt in Welsh and be replied to English (or vice-versa) and everyone would be okay with that.

There is a renewed zeal in international Welsh momentum, from groups like GlobalWelsh, the SaySomethingInWelsh community, Wales Week in New York/Hong Kong/Paris — we even have Eluned Morgan as Minister for International Relations now and she just completed a tour of North America to promote Wales and our language. The efforts by Welsh ambassadors like Walter May and Ty Francis working to convene the Welsh diaspora are a meaningful change in the scenery of Wales abroad, and it is my hope that Tŵt can provide an additional channel for these groups and communities to continue to unite and communicate with each other.

Along the way Tŵt was advised by incredibly helpful individuals including Rhoslyn Prys and Carl Morris of Hacio’r Iaith who are powerhouses in Welsh language ICT; various individuals in Welsh media; and of course an army of translators. Fifty people were invited to join and send in their feedback, and based on all this great input Tŵt launched on February 1st.

In our first month I’ve already met Cymrophiles and Welsh speakers from around the world, and we’ve seen stimulating conversation about the Six Nations rugby, post-Brexit Wales, poetry, shared some photos, and helped learners practise their Welsh.

We hope the platform serves to unite the Cymry at home and abroad, to keep us up to date on interesting news and events, to meet new friends and to revel in our shared culture and spirit. We are all editors-in-chief of our own lives, and we are now all able to express ourselves with a freedom that no generation before would have believed possible.

So, if you think you’d prefer your online social networking to be a bit more local, a bit more friendly, a bit less invasive and data-driven, consider joining our small but growing community. If you’d like to meet Welsh learners, far-flung expats or just people who love Wales then why not help us offer them a warm welcome? It’s your Wales, your voice, dy Gymru, dy lais, and we’d love to hear from you! We are online and on mobile at https://toot.wales – see you there!