The moment Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter became official, on October 27, 2022, he began trashing his new toy. And for millions of Twitterphiles, the downsides of a social network controlled by a single erratic billionaire became obvious.
But well before Musk plunked down his $44 million, people who’d thought deeply about social networking and its role in society were concerned about Twitter’s centralization. Among them was the company’s cofounder, Jack Dorsey. In 2019, when he was still CEO, he established a small team to develop an open protocol for federated Twitter-style communications—a technology that would make it more like email by allowing many independent platforms to exchange information. Twitter called the effort Bluesky.
Eventually spun out into an independent startup, Bluesky became front-page news in the tech world last spring when it released an iPhone app that evoked the earlier, Muskless Twitter with uncanny fidelity. Invite codes to the private beta became hot commodities, and people who got in felt like the cool kids.
As 2023 winds down, Bluesky, which still hasn’t opened up to all comers, has grown to 2.3 million users. Like Mastodon, Threads, and other refuges for Twitter expatriates, it hasn’t become the sort of one-stop conversation megahub that Twitter once was. Instead, an eclectic subset of the Twitter masses has landed there. CEO Jay Graber says the 30-person Bluesky team tried to recreate “the platonic ideal of microblogging as it once was” and calls out some constituencies who have bonded with the service: meme lovers, writers and artists, and people who find enforced pithiness to be a fun, creative challenge. (Bluesky has a 300-character limit.)
Why has Bluesky kept its invite system in place even though that means many would-be members still haven’t gotten in? “To be honest, we didn’t have the capacity to absorb all of that in a day,” says Graber. “It’s a full-time effort for engineers to scale up the service at the level that we were going. We actually have not had significant downtime, which is a testament to this controlled-growth strategy—you know, Twitter early on had a lot of failwhales.”
Whether you’re already on Bluesky or not, thinking of it purely as a Twitter-esque app misses the point. The app is just a testbed for the protocol the startup has been building to help nudge us out of the era of centralized social networking. And Graber—who got her job as CEO in 2021 after DMing Dorsey to express enthusiasm for the Bluesky project—says that the founding goal is soon to get its first major real-world test.
According to Graber, Bluesky’s protocol for decentralized, federated social networking, known as Authenticated Transfer (or just AT), will be ready in early 2024. At that point, others will be able to build social networks on it, all of which will be able to communicate with Bluesky and with each other. That’s when Bluesky will ditch its invite system and welcome anyone who’d like to join.
If AT takes off, it could theoretically go a long way toward weaning the internet off the platform Musk rules by whim. But Bluesky isn’t targeting Elon in particular. Instead, it’s driven by the belief that nobody should have that much power over social networking. Instead, a thousand flowers should bloom—disparate experiences managed by different people, with AT as connective tissue. There’d be something out there for everyone, from those seeking safe spaces to free-speech absolutists.
The fact that most social networking has remained so centralized “is why we haven’t been able, after two decades, to get the toxicity out of the systems that we’re in,” says Graber. “But if we open it up and we let devs try different moderation [techniques], different algorithms, different feeds, what does that world look like?”
If that question gets answered in an epoch-shifting way, it might be by something other than Bluesky. ActivityPub, the protocol used by Mastodon, sprang from similar ideals and has a six-year head start. It also has a potentially transformative inflection point in its future if Meta fulfills its pledge to support it in Threads. Then there’s Nostr, yet another federation standard incubated by Dorsey, and seemingly the one he’s most smitten with these days. (In fact, he seems to have already deleted his Bluesky account—which, if AT gains momentum, wouldn’t prevent him from engaging with Bluesky members from some other network.)
Heck, even Elon Musk seems to support decentralization in principle. That raises a glimmer, however slight, of a future in which the service I refuse to call “X” might no longer be defined by his whims.
Graber says she’s checked out ActivityPub and other protocols, welcomes the current period of experimentation they represent, and sees an opportunity for interoperability between them and AT. “I do think that having multiple protocols at this time is good,” she told me. “Because we’re testing out what works and how these protocol design choices interplay.”
Of course, only a tiny fraction of the people online are passionate about internet protocols for their own sake. Mostly, we want to talk to each other and not worry about the technical underpinnings. But as Twitter continues to degrade, the profusion of incompatible rivals does feel like an ad for the virtues of a standard protocol that could tie them all together. At the moment, I’m on Mastodon, Threads, and Bluesky—and still lurking on Twitter—but trying to be part of so many communities has been a fundamentally unsatisfying experience.
It all reminds me of the pre-web days when I belonged to four online services at once: AOL, CompuServe, GEnie, and BIX. The very definition of walled gardens, they didn’t even let you send email from one service to another until the internet craze took off. I hope to live to see the day when walled-garden social networking is just as absurd a concept—and so I’m rooting for Bluesky and everyone else trying to make that happen.
BY HARRY MCCRACKEN