Bluesky has much going for it as Twitter’s decentralized alter ego

The logo of the social media platform Bluesky
The logo of the social media platform Bluesky

Summary

This open platform hopes to stand out with its interoperable protocols and user-led content filters

It takes a lot of will power to tear oneself away from the cyclonic storms unleashed by Generative AI and GPT and write about something else for a change. In this column, however, I have turned my gaze to bluer skies, or more precisely Bluesky, a social networking Twitter wannabe that is creating ripples of its own. This is largely so because it is strongly backed by the man who created Twitter, Jack Dorsey. There have been many pretenders to the Twitter throne, with the most famous being the near-extinct Mastodon, which has not managed to gain traction despite some avowedly loyal anti-Musk followers. There is also Nostr, another Dorsey-backed app, created by an anonymous creator who goes by the pseudonym ‘fiatjaf’. Then there is the homegrown Koo, which has gained reasonable traction in India, especially among people following a certain ideology. Talking of ideologues, one cannot forget Truth Social in the US, created by the redoubtable Donald Trump, who uses it as a public megaphone for his frequent rants.

This column focuses on Bluesky, not only because it is being pushed by Jack Dorsey, but because of its remarkably interesting decentralized nature, which could become a model for more democratic, data protective social networks, and perhaps even AI models. Interestingly, the Bluesky project started within Twitter itself in 2019, and was focused on R&D around decentralized social networks. After Twitter messily sold itself to Elon Musk, Bluesky was spun out as a public benefit limited liability company. It raised $13 million investment, found an ex-AWS CEO, and Dorsey became a member of its Board. Bluesky is still a minnow with some 50,000 users, though it includes prominent names like US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ford CEO Jim Farley and model Chrissy Teigen. However, it is growing fast even though it is still invite-only, with visits to its app rocketing to 1.5 million in April 2023 from just 15,000 in February.

The app looks very much like Twitter and has similar features, and its posts are called ‘skeets’—a combination of sky and tweets. Where it differs significantly is its holding structure. The company is held by the founding team, and as it tweeted last year: “the ‘public benefit’ part of our structure gives us the freedom to put our resources towards our mission without an obligation to return money to shareholders. The funding of Bluesky is not subject to any conditions except one: that Bluesky is to research and develop technologies that enable open and decentralized networks."

This decentralized nature is the other big and potentially disruptive difference. The aim of the Bluesky project was to build a single protocol or universal standard, on which existing social networks and software developers could create more customized offerings—in fact, Twitter itself could be a client on this ‘platform of platforms’. The thought was to make this protocol interoperable, with no central authority. Bluesky CEO Jay Graber described it as “a foundation for next generation social apps that can bring back the openness and creativity of the early web." The idea, therefore, was to break out of the ‘walled garden’ approach that all social networks follow—if you post a picture on Instagram or Facebook, you got to do this again on Twitter, and yet again on LinkedIn, thus prohibiting ‘cross-posting.’ The idea behind an open network like Bluesky is that posts can flow between your different platforms. An additional feature is that there will be no advertisers on Bluesky, as it is not a conventional profit-making corporation. How it sustains itself is still not clear, perhaps it may look for subscriptions or crowdfunding. Bray has also talked about a new social concept of ‘composable moderation’ where “users [curate] their own experiences based on a menu of custom algorithms made by third parties, such as one that might filter out offensive speech or focus on a particular topic." (bit.ly/3MbSII1).

I have written often about decentralized social media platforms with user-controlled data and moderation earlier, and it is very exciting to see one taking shape. In a world where technology is increasingly getting controlled by very few Big Tech companies, this is a necessary step to give power back to the people—something which Web3 evangelists have been trying for a while. Dorsey is one of them, believing in the power of blockchain and decentralization (he renamed his company Square to Block). He has also been quite clear on the centralized platform he is trying to dethrone here. When a Bluesky user wondered whether he had named the app to make Twitter an open protocol, thus releasing the Twitter bird logo to a wide blue sky, Dorsey answered, “Yes."

Jaspreet Bindra is a technology expert, author of The Tech Whisperer, and is currently pursuing his Masters in AI and Ethics from Cambridge University.

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