Back in 2018, while looking at the monster he helped create, Jack Dorsey started thinking out loud: What was wrong with Twitter? Why were people so cruel to each other? Why did it foster such divisiveness? Why did hate go viral?
The company put out a request for proposal for anyone who had smart ideas on tackling these issues. Dorsey focused on learning the principles of “healthy” conversations. He came to understand that the hard-coded mechanics of Twitter were a major contributing factor in how we behaved. The “hellsite,” as people half-jokingly call it, was by design.
“Right now we have a big Like button with a heart on it and we’re incentivising people to want it to go up,” he told an event hosted by tech magazine Wired. He pondered removing the “like” function as well as other aspects of social validation, such as follower counts. Others pointed out that the “quote tweet,” where you could comment on someone else’s post and bring it to the attention of the frothing masses, was another highly-flammable feature. Dorsey pledged to do better.
How dispiriting it has been, then, to use Bluesky.
‘Hottest club online’
The new app backed by Dorsey that launched in February has been ordained by some as the post-Elon Musk Twitter alternative we have been waiting for. Rolling Stone magazine last week called it the “hottest club online.” There are more than 1 million people on its waiting list, and last weekend saw some Twitter heavy-hitters join the platform, such as US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the comedian Dril.
Bluesky was spun out of an R&D project set up by Dorsey when he was CEO at Twitter to look at the potential for a decentralised social network. The concept is that by creating an open protocol, you can stop any single app or company having total power over the network, in the way Twitter and Facebook do over their respective services today.
Dorsey, who isn’t running Bluesky but sits on its board, is simultaneously the best and worst person to be involved in building such an alternative. Best, because he’s done it before. Worst, because, well, look what happened. This was the man who described Musk as the “singular solution” he trusted to save Twitter, despite glaring evidence to the contrary.
Regardless of the underlying technology, the functionality for the end user remains the same, as do the cursed mechanisms that turned right-minded people into conspiracy theorists, exposed young Black footballers to racist abuse and created Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“It all went south,” Dorsey finally conceded this weekend in a “skeet” — a post on Bluesky — discussing the fallout from Musk’s buyout of Twitter. “But it happened and all we can do now is build something to avoid that ever happening again.”
Nothing I’ve seen so far has convinced me Bluesky is that “something.” The small number of users today, less than 100,000, has lulled fans into a false sense of security. All lightly populated networks feel better at first. At scale, there is no reason Bluesky users won’t behave how Twitter users did.
Bluesky’s development team have already recreated some of Twitter’s most toxic elements. The like and follower counts are there. The quote tweet — or skeet — function, too. Under the “What’s Hot” tab, viral posts take centre stage, creating the same incentives to drum up divisiveness or offence. In fact, the biggest complaint from users so far is that it’s missing some of Twitter’s other features. Yet it looks so similar you almost have to double-check which app you’re using.
Many people would argue I’m missing the bigger picture, which is this: Bluesky is decentralised, which gives it resilience and a strength over Twitter. If I don’t like the Bluesky app, for instance, I could theoretically access the same posts from its users with an alternative app, one whose functionality and content policies that may be more to my liking. If I don’t like the viral posts I’m seeing, I will one day be able to change the ranking system, thanks to an algorithm “marketplace,” the Bluesky team hopes.
The controversial business of moderation
This open platform — called the Authenticated Transfer Protocol, or AT Protocol — is the key innovation here. It’s open for anyone to use and build upon, and cannot be controlled or bought by any single entity, such as a billionaire fed up with imagined wokeness. The controversial business of moderation is intended to be shared across many apps and servers, each with their own policies.
These are all good ideas. But let’s get real. For the vast majority of internet users, we know the “default” setting is king. While ambitions of a grand open protocol are well-intentioned, for all but the power users, the Bluesky app will be it — the sole method through which the majority will access the “open” AT Protocol. A multitude of different apps and algorithms will only confuse and alienate — much like with Mastodon, another Twitter alternative, dismissed by many as being too complicated for new users due to its sprawl of different servers and nerdier clientele.
The creators of Bluesky have described their app as a reference point for how others might build their own using the AT Protocol, a sort of best practice for usability and features. Which is why I find Bluesky so frustrating. Regardless of the underlying technology, the functionality for the end user remains the same, as do the cursed mechanisms that turned right-minded people into conspiracy theorists, exposed young Black footballers to racist abuse and created Marjorie Taylor Greene.
In keeping with Dorsey’s track record, Bluesky is big on aspiration, but lacking in fine detail. The company has yet to explain how its decentralised moderation will work in practice. Who will do it? Who will pay for it?
The lack of clarity on how Bluesky can sustain itself is another urgent concern, given that its funding initially came from Twitter. We have also yet to hear the rationale for why others might wish to create Bluesky apps and servers. What’s in it for them? How will users know who can and can’t be trusted?
As several Bluesky users have remarked, it’s all a bit like watching a plane being built in midair. Those on board should think long and hard about giving Bluesky and Dorsey the chance to repeat mistakes of the past.
Dave Lee is Bloomberg Opinion’s US technology columnist.