After almost a year as an invite-only app, Bluesky is now open to the public. Funded by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, Bluesky is one of the more promising micro-blogging platforms that could provide an alternative to Elon Musk’s X.
Before opening to the public, the platform had about 3 million sign-ups. Now that anyone can join, the young platform faces a challenge: how can it meaningfully stand up to Threads’ 130 million monthly active users, or even Mastodon’s 1.8 million?
Bluesky looks and functions like Twitter at the outset, but the platform stands out because of what lies under the hood. The company began as a project inside of Twitter that sought to build a decentralized infrastructure called the AT Protocol for social networking. As a decentralized platform, Bluesky’s code is completely open source, which gives people outside of the company transparency into what is being built and how. Developers can even write their own code on top of the AT Protocol, so they can create anything from a custom algorithm to an entirely new social platform.
“What decentralization gets you is the ability to try multiple things in parallel, and so you’re not bottlenecking change on one organization,” Bluesky CEO Jay Graber told TechCrunch. “The way we built Bluesky actually lets anyone insert a change into the product.”
This setup gives users more agency to control and curate their social media experience. On a centralized platform like Instagram, for example, users have revolted against algorithm changes that they dislike, but there’s not much they can do to revert or improve upon an undesired app update.
The literal elephant in the room is Mastodon, the open source, decentralized social network that’s been around since 2016, years before Bluesky existed. While the platforms share similar goals, they use different protocols, making it difficult for the platforms to work together. While some communities have found a home on Mastodon, others have been deterred by the network’s confusing onboarding process and technical terminology. That’s where Bluesky’s strategy diverges.
“The whole philosophy has been that this needs to have a good UX and be a good experience,” Graber said on a panel last month. “People aren’t just in it for the decentralization and abstract ideas. They’re in it for having fun and having a good time here.”
Bluesky’s commitment to an intuitive user experience doesn’t mean it’s slowing down on the technical end. The company also shared today that it will introduce an experimental version of open federation later in the month. Developers will be able to build their own separate servers, like how Mastodon has thousands of different instances. Like on Mastodon, Bluesky users will be able to choose what server to use, and if they ever change their mind, they can migrate to a different server without losing all of their posts, followers, and following lists.
Another upcoming update will allow individual users or organizations to create their own content moderation services, which other users can subscribe to.
“For example, a fact-checking organization can run a labeling service and mark posts as ‘partially false,’ ‘misleading,’ or other categories,” Bluesky wrote in a blog post. “Then, users who trust this organization can subscribe to their labels. As the user scrolls through the app, any labels that the fact-checking organization publishes will be visible on the post itself.”
This all sounds great, but of course, the question will inevitably arise: what if a bad actor creates a moderation service or a server that has tangibly harmful consequences? That’s a big challenge for these decentralized platforms (or, “the fediverse”) to figure out.
“The analogies here are really just, this is how the web works,” Graber said. “So what you do when people are building things on the web that could be dangerous? There’s different levels of intervention. First of all, don’t promote it, don’t send it out to more eyeballs. And then you can disconnect from it, don’t link out to it. So make it less discoverable.”
This is more of a hands-off approach, which also relies on users to take advantage of Bluesky’s customizable moderation tools to determine what online safety means to them. But that might be a lot of responsibility to place on the individual user. In more extreme cases — like the dissemination of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) — the team behind the AT Protocol will step in to eliminate the violative material entirely.
Bluesky has a long way to go, but it’s already defied the odds — in a slightly altered timeline, it may not even exist at this point. In Dorsey’s vision, Twitter would have eventually migrated to the AT Protocol, but he ended up stepping down as CEO, and then Musk later stepped in and changed the platform’s priorities and values. Graber couldn’t have possibly anticipated that plot twist, but a year before the acquisition, she just so happened to spin Bluesky out from Twitter and into its own public benefit corporation. So now, Bluesky is a project that used to be part of Twitter, which is now competing with X, the company that also used to be Twitter. And if you’re eager to see how that all plays out, then it’s a good thing the platform just opened to the public.