Is it possible for a social media platform to plan for its own death? I’ve been thinking about that while enjoying Bluesky’s “fizzy, fuck-around energy,” as my Startup colleague Kate Knibbs described the (still) invite-only Twitter alternative a few months back. The shitposting, the earnestness, the bad takes from novices trying to figure out the vibe. (Friendly advice: Don’t come here to say bad things about the public library.) I wasn’t there for the birth of Twitter, but I’m told Bluesky feels a little like the rowdy early days of the platform it’s meant to supplant.
Bluesky users have become ardent defenders of this gorgeous chaos—especially this week, as millions signed up for Meta’s new Twitter clone, Threads—but they are also purveyors of tough love. My feed is cluttered with grumbling about bugs, debate over what constitutes a ban-worthy death threat, and demands for answers from the platform’s CEO about why the terms of service read like you’re signing away your life rights. The grousing, I think, shows people care. And for the most part, so far, Bluesky’s leaders have listened. The decline of Twitter marooned us all on a desert island. Now we’re collectively building a ship to get off. Some of the volunteers might seem a little high, but it’s a good time on the beach, and she’s looking more and more seaworthy by the day.
Funny then, that this surging social media app isn’t really supposed to exist. In 2019, when then Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey first tweeted the name Bluesky, the idea was not to build a platform that would compete with Twitter but a decentralized protocol that Twitter, among others, would adopt. That would create a system of “federated” servers or platforms, operated by different organizations with different rules and policies that could nonetheless interoperate. Users on Twitter could talk to people on other services compatible with Bluesky—and, if necessary, move their digital identities elsewhere.
There were plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The idea that Twitter would voluntarily cede its power to control (and monetize) its users seemed laughable. To me, then a cynical crypto reporter, “decentralized” suggested a weird Bitcoin thing. (Dorsey was especially jazzed about digital currency at the time.) During the 2020 election season and the attendant calls to regulate social media, it sounded more like a handy way to shrug off tough moderation decisions.
Then came Musk and the new Twitter. The stakes changed. For one thing, the destabilizing acquisition brought home that whenever we sow our seeds in new digital territory, it’s important to keep the garden gate open. It also cut the Bluesky project loose from Twitter, so its leaders began work on their own social app to get people using its federated network, known as the AT Protocol. Suddenly, they were building what was essentially Twitter 2.0, while at the same time still building the protocol that would, in theory, ensure Twitter 2.0 didn’t meet the same fate as the original.
One word for that fate—used, I’ve noticed, by some Bluesky developers—is “enshittification.” Writer Cory Doctorow coined the term last year to describe the way for-profit digital platforms such as social networks or online marketplaces end up choking themselves. First, often flush with money from investors, a platform treats its users nicely. It helps you build a following and yoke yourself into a network. Then, once its user base has become comfortably ensconced, the platform changes the rules, aiming to maximize its gains. The difference between tech monopolists and, say, railroad barons, Doctorow explains, is how fast they can twiddle the dials. Post-Musk Twitter offers examples: Suddenly you lose your ability to reach your audience without paying a fee, like for Twitter Blue, or you can no longer see what you want because of a clutter of ads. There is no recourse. Users are abused in more damaging ways as the platform seeks greater profits, until a breaking point is reached and it becomes unusable. The platform kills itself off.