What is Bluesky, the potential Twitter alternative being tested by former CEO Jack Dorsey?

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With auspicious timing, a small tech firm founded by Twitter's former chief executive Jack Dorsey has announced the launch of a new social network just as Elon Musk completes his $44 billion buyout of Twitter itself.

Bluesky, a public benefit corporation designed to build a new "open and decentralised" form of social media that is not controlled by any single company, said earlier this month that it will soon release a public test app called Bluesky Social.

Yet Bluesky is not a rival to Twitter so much as a spin-off, created and funded by its parent company in the hope of one day adopting its technology. Mr Dorsey has since said he believes in Mr Musk's plan for Twitter "with all [his] heart"

The question is whether Mr Musk, the richest person on Earth and the boss of both Tesla and SpaceX, is really interested in Bluesky's vision of liberation from corporate control – especially now that he controls the purse strings.

So what exactly is Bluesky, and could it ever prove to be a thorn in Mr Musk's side?

Bluesky is Dorsey’s answer to the failures of Twitter

Bluesky was first announced by Jack Dorsey in December 2019, when Silicon Valley was in the midst of a global "techlash" and preparing for a storm of misinformation and election interference in the run-up to the 2020 US election.

Like every other major social network, Twitter was struggling with a dilemma that its founders never wanted but nonetheless chose for themselves: how to regulate the speech of hundreds of millions of people without running the risk of overreaching (to say nothing of damaging the company's bottom line).

"Centralised enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term without placing far too much burden on people," Mr Dorsey wrote on Twitter.

The financial incentives facing social media firms, he added, "frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation which informs and promotes health".

Hence, he said Twitter would fund a "small independent team" of up to five software developers to create "an open and decentralised standard for social media", with the ultimate goal of moving Twitter itself onto this standard.

Crucially, Twitter does not have a controlling ownership share in BlueSky. As of April this year, it had received $13m in funding from Twitter, supposedly without any conditions except to continue its research.

An open protocol to ‘decentralise’ social media

It's worth pausing to unpack what Mr Dorsey means by "standard". Social networks like Twitter and Instagram are centralised commercial services, owned and operated by a specific company which ultimately has the final say about everything that happens on them.

Their inner workings – such as recommendation algorithms – are closely guarded proprietary information, as is the data they collect from their users (including simple things like your friends list). The network's owners can pick and choose whether and how other software applications can access its features and data.

But all these social networks depend on a deeper set of technical rules such as HTTP and TCP/IP, which provide a widely-accepted standards for how computers should talk to each other over a network. Such "protocols" are open for anyone to use or build products on top of, and are often maintained by non-profit bodies such as the Internet Society.

A similar set of protocols govern how email works, which is part of the reason why you can email someone who uses a different email service and be sure your attachment will get through, whereas you cannot use TikTok to make a post on Reddit.

Bluesky's job is to create a new "decentralised" protocol for social media, which would allow any number of companies and individuals to build their own apps, services, or recommendation algorithms on top of the same underlying networks and data.

In the kind of world Bluesky envisions, if you didn't like YouTube's automated recommendations, you could switch to another app that lets you access the same videos with a different recommendation system – or none at all.

You could join a version of Twitter that has stronger content moderation, or no content moderation at all, or custom filtering algorithms that hide any spoilers for films made in the last ten years.

‘Twitter should never have been a company’

Bluesky has said that its priorities include allowing users to move their data between social networks and to choose which algorithms filter content for them.

The latter idea echoes a suggestion by Mr Dorsey that Twitter would create a "marketplace" for third-party algorithms that users could buy and install (Twitter has reportedly been testing something like this already).

Mr Dorsey believes that this approach could solve Big Tech's free speech problem. By bringing so much of the internet under their control, social media giants have made themselves responsible for policing the speech of the entire world. Yet nobody can write a single set of rules that will please millions or billions of people across the world, let alone enforce such rules consistently.

"Twitter started as a protocol. It should never have been a company. That was the original sin," said Mr Dorsey in a private text message to Mr Musk this March.

He added that such a protocol would need to be funded but not owned by some kind of foundation. Any "centralised entity" that decides how the protocol will work or what speech should be banned would simply be a weak point for advertisers and governments to lean on.

According to veteran tech writer Mike Masnick, who has been cited by Mr Dorsey as a key inspiration, this would not only create a new ecosystem of third-party filtering and recommendation systems but also reduce the pressure to be global speech cops.

The more control social media companies have over what users see, Mr Masnick argues, the more people will hold them responsible for policing socially undesirable but legal speech such as bigotry and conspiracy theories. If companies’ algorithms lose their power to promote such content so widely, users – and outside forces such as advertisers, politicians, and campaigners – may be more willing to live and let live.

"We can let a million content moderation systems approach the same general corpus of content – each taking an entirely different approach – and see which ones work best," Mr Masnick wrote in 2019.

Does Elon Musk care about BlueSky?

With the departure of Mr Dorsey and his successor Parag Agrawal, Bluesky has lost its biggest patrons inside Twitter. So how much does Elon Musk really care about the project?

In their private text conversation, Mr Musk appeared receptive. "Super interesting idea," he told Mr Dorsey. "I'd like to help if I am able to.... let's definitely discuss more. I think it's worth both trying to move Twitter in a better direction and doing something new that's decentralised."

Mr Dorsey later gave his qualified endorsement to Mr Musk's buyout bid, saying: "In principle, I don’t believe anyone should own or run Twitter. It wants to be a public good at a protocol level, not a company.

"Solving for the problem of it being a company, however, Elon is the singular solution I trust... this is the right path. I believe it with all my heart."

Mr Musk has also expressed some interest in making Twitter more open, suggesting he might make its algorithms public and spitballing with his brother Kimbal about building a social network based on blockchains (the decentralised technology behind cryptocurrency).

There a natural affinity between the idea of decentralising social media and the broadly libertarian politics of Mr Musk, who once declared that "government is simply the biggest corporation, with a monopoly on violence".

Could Bluesky ever compete with Twitter?

However, Mr Musk is also an infamous micromanager (or, as he puts it, "nanomanager") who insists on personal oversight of the tiniest details.

He has little history of creating open standards or systems, instead building proprietary space rockets and high-end electric cars with their own charging station network, which is only slowly opening up to non-Tesla drivers.

The South African mogul has also signalled that he wants to make massive budget cuts at Twitter. He initially claimed he would slash its staff by nearly 75 per cent, although he has since walked back that percentage.

He has already fired many of Twitter’s top staff, including Bluesky’s patron Mr Agrawal, and seems likely to attempt further rounds of layoffs. Bluesky's $13m gift represents around 1 per cent of the company's quarterly expenses.

Then there is Tesla's dependence on countries where politicians have sought to exert more control over social media, such as China, India, and Brazil, to build and sell its electric vehicles. If national leaders try to lean on Mr Musk, would he value Twitter's "decentralisation" over Tesla's bottom line?

In theory Bluesky could venture out on its own, and Mr Dorsey has claimed that its app, Bluesky Social, will be "a competitor to any company trying to own the underlying fundamentals for social media or the data of the people using it".

But the world already has numerous attempts at alternative or decentralised social networks, many using the ActivityPub protocol that powers Mastodon. Despite niche success, none of them have dethroned Twitter.

And, of course, there is the lesson of history. Many Silicon Valley executives, including Mr Dorsey, have a philosophical commitment to decentralised technology, with many having grown up on the techno-anarchist internet of the Nineties and early Noughties.

Nevertheless, time and time again, they have chosen to close their gates, make up their own rules, and build centralised tech empires in the pursuit of user growth and profit. It is not yet clear whether Mr Musk intends to do the same.