"Jack [Dorsey] knows he’s one of the few people actually empowered to protect the open internet, and now that the election is over he has a little breathing room." – Mike Solana
Bluesky, an open-source protocol for social media being funded by Twitter, holds enormous potential to help fix our broken social media ecosystem.
Social media platforms are the public squares of the information age. Unfortunately, the dominant applications bring out the worst aspects of humanity while suppressing our strengths. Individually, we can mitigate the downsides – through breaks like dopamine fasts. Collectively, we have become dependent on social media. There is no turning back.
Designing healthier social media is a requirement for the rapid, complex collaboration needed to tackle the major issues of our time such as reforming democracy, protecting the environment, developing safe AI.
This post will explain how Bluesky could help.
How Open Protocols Birthed the Web
To understand how an open protocol can fix social media, we'll need a brief history lesson.
Protocols are shared languages for computers. Technical standards released as public infrastructure, not owned by any single party. Anyone can examine exactly how they work, build products and applications on top of them, or modify them without permission.
The TCP/IP protocol, developed thanks to research from DARPA in the late 1960s, specified a standard method for networked computers to communicate with each other. It is the foundation for the Internet. Because it is a shared protocol, Dell computers, HP computers, and Apple computers can communicate with each other over the Internet.
The SMTP protocol, created in 1981, is a protocol for electronic mail transmission. Users of Gmail, Yahoo mail, and Hotmail, can communicate with each other because they all use SMTP.
The HTTP protocol, developed in 1989, is the foundation for the World Wide Web. Users of Chrome, Firefox, and Brave can interact on a shared web because they operate on a shared protocol.
There is no widely-adopted protocol for social media. Instead, corporations use proprietary technology to build private walled gardens. Users of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Instagram and Youtube can not easily communicate with each other. Moving to a new social network carries enormous switching costs–much larger than the costs associated with switching computers, email providers, or web browsers.
Collaboration, shared standards, healthy competition, and open access allowed the internet and email to flourish. Developers building new social platforms don't benefit from these useful dynamics.
We need a protocol for social.
Benefits of a Social Media Protocol
"...I believe [Bluesky] is so fundamental to our future. I believe it's so fundamental to the Internet, and we're working as fast as we can to get there. I hope we can get to a prototype stage within the next few years that Twitter, Inc. can actually use and contribute to." – Jack Dorsey
Dorsey has highlighted four benefits of building a protocol for social media. Three in recent testimony to the U.S. Congress: greater transparency, innovation and collaboration. A fourth, censorship-resistance, during an interview at the 2021 Bitcoin Miami conference.
Open protocols replace trust in companies with trust in code. A protocol for social media would make it easier to develop applications that give greater transparency into how user data is being stored. It would facilitate the development of tools that give more transparency into what is happening in online spaces. Core flaws and vulnerabilities in open social applications could be identified quickly and discussed in public.
An open protocol would increase innovation in a few key areas.
- Experimentation with business models will help us replace the ad-based model which forces companies to optimize for monopolizing users' attention rather than improving their well-being. Micropayments, blockchain-based tokenization, and private opt-in ads are promising alternative monetization models that we'll be able to explore. Dorsey has confirmed that Bitcoin-based payments via the Lightning Network are on the roadmap for Twitter/Bluesky.
- Experimentation with recommendation algorithms will help us develop algorithms that aim to increase user well-being, not corporate revenues. Dorsey envisions an "open marketplace of algorithms" where users are free to choose the ones that best meet their personal needs. Twitter's Responsible Machine Learning Initiative represents a significant step towards building this future.
- Experimentation with moderation controls will help us address the fact that centralized moderation doesn't scale, it places too great a burden on small groups of people. Reddit and Mastadon are good examples of decentralized approaches that delegate the responsibility of moderation to communities. Twitter's new Birdwatch system "allows people to identify information in Tweets they believe is misleading and write notes that provide informative context." The project is in its pilot phase with code and data available on Github.
A shared protocol will empower us to rapidly address societal issues by facilitating more collaboration towards building creative solutions. Some powerful browser extensions and web applications built on Twitter's private API offer a glimpse into the sort of innovation a protocol would unleash.
- Twemex is a browser extension that "replaces the distracting Twitter sidebar and surfaces insightful tweets."
- Hive.one uses a mathematical approach to helps users identify who, and what information should be considered credible.
- Check my echo chamber measures the strength of your political echo chamber
- Twitterexplorer is an interface that helps computational social scientists. explore Twitter data through interactive network visualizations.
- MentionMapp allows you to visualize and explore interactions to help find new hashtags and followers.
Dorsey believes social media can be more like Bitcoin, and an open protocol like Bluesky will help bring this vision to life. His current goal in life is to "remove as much as I can the corporateness of our companies and find better intersections with the open-source community."
He sees Twitter gradually evolving into a platform that "will have none of the restrictions that you see on Twitter."
"I know that there’s a lot of you out there who disagree with a lot of actions that Twitter has taken. I know there’s a lot of you out there who disagree with our policies and the way we have evolved them. I appreciate that and recognize it. I also recognize the fact that there is an incentive and a corporate incentive and a business incentive that is different than what might be needed for global communication and for a public conversation." - Jack Dorsey
A few questions I'll be keeping in mind as I observe Bluesky's progress:
- What will Twitter's business model look like if they successfully transition to being the client of an open protocol?
- To what extent will this standard be embraced by other social media giants?
- Will Twitter succeed in creating a diverse and thriving open-source community around the Bluesky standard?
- Do those who are worried this open vision will create safe havens for extremists have valid concerns?
- Will someone else build a better social protocol? Ric Burton is convinced a revolution in social media will come from "come from young teams with nothing to lose and a totally new perspective." Project Liberty could be a credible competitor.
Bluesky is one of the most important new initiatives in social media. If the team succeeds in manifesting Dorsey's vision, it will provide humanity with the infrastructure necessary for us to build a healthier social media ecosystem.
Instead of relying on governments or corporations to address the issues with social media, we must embrace an alternative well-tested approach. Global collaboration around open-source standards. Open to anyone who wishes to contribute. Transparent for the entire world to observe.
"So really excited about the work [on Bluesky]. I think it's an entirely new chapter for the Internet and for our company. It's going to challenge us in all the right ways, and I think it aligns our incentives to make sure that we are building a durable and enduring business, and that we're addressing a bunch of the concerns we see with social media in this moment and also some that will likely occur in the future." – Jack Dorsey