Merchant: Bluesky reminds us of when social media was fun

Merchant: Bluesky reminds us of when social media was fun

Silicon Valley’s hottest startup in May 2023 is not an AI outfit or a metaverse gambit. It’s a flawed copy of Twitter, circa 2013. I’ve spent the last week on the burgeoning social media Bluesky trying to figure out why, and I’ve discovered something alarming: We’ve entered the social media reboot phase.

Bluesky looks and feels like Twitter 10 years ago, and there’s a reason for that: it was born in the belly of the bird app. Funded as an internal initiative by former CEO Jack Dorsey, Bluesky started in 2019 as an effort to build a protocol for a decentralized social network – basically, a way to make social media work more like email, where different clients like Gmail and Outlook can talk to each other.

When Elon Musk took over, he cut Twitter and now, ironically, Bluesky may become Twitter’s most viable direct competitor. After all, many have never been more eager to find an alternative to Twitter, given all the ways Musk has made it more unpleasant to use. Back in March, when Bluesky launched in invite-only beta, few had heard of it. Last week, when thousands of people got those invites, suddenly, in online and tech circles at least, AI was on the sidelines and that was all anyone talked about.

When I logged in on Thursday, it was to the kind of wild, exultant scrum that nearly became extinct on major social media in the 2020s. Every update brought genuinely inscrutable memes, posts from an AI duck account spewing nonsense, and a torrent of nude selfies. There were reconnections between old friends online, an aggressive pile from a well-known writer, and accounts of wide-eyed celebrities and politicians posting it all.

Bluesky is unabashedly derivative and rudimentary. Instead of tweets, you send “skeets”, threads are called strings, and there are no direct messages. It’s a flood of raw, unfiltered content. At its best (and perhaps also at its worst), social media is like tapping into the identity of a large slice of humanity. It’s funny, thought-provoking, disgusting, libidinal, and irritating all at once. That’s Bluesky now.

The best point of reference, again, is Twitter from the early days; I’m old enough to remember logging on in the late 2000’s and being lost and kind of dumbfounded by the scene there. Serious news passed for inscrutable jokes that disappeared behind someone getting mad at an airline. Cheerful, poorly controlled chaos.

That’s what being on Bluesky is like, but for many users it’s associated with a great deal of nostalgia for that experience, for what now feels like the golden age of social media. Users love it, I think, because it feels like a homecoming. Even glitches, like a bug that lets bots drag you down endless “ropes” – affectionately called hell wires – are celebrated as community events. For some reason, one day, everyone posted endlessly about “ALF,” the 1980s sitcom about a crazy alien.

This kind of jubilant, lopsided environment is what people who spend all day online live in — even though, at the end of the day, we’ve all been here before and have a sense of where it’s inevitably going.

It’s no coincidence that Bluesky’s most exuberant and vocal promoters are famous 30-something millennials who are also notoriously proficient social media users: people like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “Star Wars” director Rian Johnson, NBC’s Ben Collins, and model Chrissy Teigen. Other big Twitter users like the semi-anonymous absurdist comedian Dril, Taylor Lorenz of the Washington Post, Jake Tapper of CNN and Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times have also obtained accounts, and some are trying to escape very.

This was Bluesky’s biggest coup, as well as being open for business while Twitter was jumping off the rails. Whether by design or not, it managed to get all these users out the door at the same time. Insofar as something as infrastructural as a social network can feel like an exclusive and trendy club, Bluesky does just that, giving users the feeling that first drew so many to social networks in the first place: that feeling that you are in a room with a congressman, a Hollywood star or a great writer, and that no decorum is required to join – and, in fact, it would be preferable that you check at the door.

It’s working. People are shelling out $400 just to get an invitation to jump the velvet rope.

But so far, Bluesky is all vibrations and circumstances – the experience has been defined entirely by the community that has come out here, which means it’s extremely precarious. It’s fun whether you’re a certain type of terminal online poster or someone who misses the early days of Twitter.

Still — and maybe I’m just a cynical veteran of the blog wars of the 2010s — it’s hard for me to imagine spending much time on another social platform, building another network, presenting another me. Especially when we still know so little about how the company behind it plans to run its playground.

Right now, Bluesky is intentionally a clone of Twitter with a big infrastructure vision, but not a community one. Its main objective is to build its decentralized protocol that will allow others to create their own social media sites. I don’t get the feeling that more than a small handful of the current user base – which remains small, comparatively, at 55,000 or so – care much about it. They like Bluesky because it feels like old Twitter, because they are free to post whatever they want in the moment, and because Elon Musk is nowhere to be seen.

This is more than fine; part of Bluesky’s mission is also to try to do people care. But it’s not obvious how the company plans to govern itself or, say, make money from its decentralized fiefdom. How are you going to try to generate revenue? Are you looking for venture capital? that already to have venture capital? Twitter paid Bluesky $13 million, but it’s unclear if there’s additional funding or where it might come from. (Call me skeptical — and I have engineer friends who like what Bluesky is designing — but I worry that the decentralized structure gives the company an easy way to pass the buck on difficult policies under the guise of “technology will sort it out, eventually.”)

All of this seems to matter both for users, who have just spent a decade on social media chasing business models that have overpowered toxicity, and for the company itself, which seems to value progressivism and transparency, and is about to face a battery of new tests. It should, at a minimum, have detailed plans to ensure the safety of its users and the openness of the platform. Ideally, it will have more vision and ideas about the kind of place it wants to be – and it won’t settle for being a reboot.

Because this frothy honeymoon period isn’t going to last. Bluesky was insanely excited that a small enough group of Internet culture makers, all with relatively compatible politics and pop cultural tastes, took over the app just in time. It is both carefree and relatively civilized. It is guaranteed to be a passenger.

There have already been some reviews with content moderation crises. When polarizing writer Matt Yglesias signed up, his responses were flooded with people trying to kick him off the platform. One of them threatened, perhaps jokingly, to kill him with a hammer. This user has been banned. Another account that joined over the weekend started harassing trans users; Bluesky CEO Jay Graber was also keen to ban this poster.

Everyone cheered. Her dedication to establishing an active presence on Bluesky is admirable-she routinely engages users by asking questions-even though this kind of crazy strategy will go on for as long as I’m sure she knows. (They decided to remove all nudes from the “What’s Hot” tab, perhaps in an attempt to get puritanical Apple to approve the app.) The platform will grow, and the imposition of norms and rules will inevitably alienate some and drive others crazy, and, as Bluesky users are constantly pointing out, there are legions of trolls at the gates, licking their chops, waiting to stir up trouble, forcing the kinds of moderation decisions that spoil the party just because they can.

What is Bluesky’s strategy, then, when the nostalgic halo of posting like it’s 2014 is wearing off, when the trolling has started in earnest, moderation policies are letting everyone down, and Twitter’s still formidable network effect is pulling users back into its mouth? Will Bluesky be able to stand alone? Or will it be a fun diversion, a time when a few thousand of Twitter’s best users relived its glory days for a while?

Hoping to better understand his thinking on these matters, I ran to Graber asking how Bluesky plans to weather the next few days – about its governance, about plans to pursue investment or how it might generate revenue – but got no response.

I knew I was being a buzzkill. On the What’s Hot tab, people were sharing thirst traps, mocking Twitter, reveling in the freedom to get weird. I don’t blame her for not backing down; no one else either. They were too busy posting.

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