Project to Watch: Bluesky

Here is an interesting project to keep an eye on:
https://blueskyweb.org/

The idea is to define an open protocol that social media platforms would adopt, and thus allow for users to choose their own client for how to view the content. (Similar to how email IMAP/SMTP works). Then, Twitter (at least) is planning to adopt this protocol.

If this is real, then it could begin to shatter the monopoly held by the social media giants. But I’m skeptical as of now, because it is heavily backed by Jack Dorsey, which makes me doubtful, because, if successful, it would undermine Twitter.

Here is an article describing the recent project news.

Here are the official goals and scope for the project, from their Git repo

This is definitely an interesting project to follow. If successful, it would mean that there would be no content bans carried out by the centralized platform – instead each client (user) could choose which users they wanted to see/not see. Or to put it another way – if Twitter tried to ban a certain user from their curation of the feed, then users could simply decide to choose another client to browse their social media feed.

Anybody know anything about this project? How realistic are the chances that it be allowed to succeed?

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By the way, the article links to a whitepaper that I have read before, and I would recommend:

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does this use blockchain or some similar system? the thing about protocols and standards is that in practice, the adoption of them is inconsistent, and voluntary. in the end, someone has to host the content, and unless that is strategically decentralized, cancellation is possible. the cynic in me says that Dorsey’s interest would be to keep his enemies close, not that he’s necessarily hoping it is wildly successful and supplants twitter. it’s like Pepsi buying Sodastream.

Dorsey’s interesting… 80% of his net worth is in Square. given that Twitter’s never been an enormous financial success (certainly compared w/ Bitcoin, which he’s a big advocate of) it’s possible he’s using Twitter for more experimental purposes, willing to try things that could financially harm it but also offer exponential upside. Of course he’s probably pursuing these in ways that would continue to give him disproportionate influence over the shape of any successor

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I think that’s likely, and another possibility is that Twitter remains the flagship, but can effectively outsource moderation, or have legitimate plausible deniability around what’s distributed. If the desired regulations or threats thereof are onerous enough in the right way, or even just a PR disaster in the making at larger scale, it seems like a possibility to me.

This is very interesting. I’ve come to the conclusion thinking on my own that the current situation is completely untenable (and not just by the standards of right wingers, either) and that something like bluesky (I’ve only just given it a cursory glance) MUST come about. I think it’s (to quote Bannon regarding Trump winning as a populist) a metaphysical certitude that this will happen, and the sooner and better it does so the better things will be for literally everyone except a few tyrants who happen to rule the entire big tech public square. I’d like to work with whoever really gets going on this (be it bluesky or anyone else) as I can’t see a more important project that I have any skill to be part of.

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Bluesky looks to me like an attempt to overrun or at least suppress ActivityPub with something more or less functionally equivalent but controlled by the current biggest players. This is a strategy deployed all the time in open source; it’s sometimes called “embrace, extend, extinguish”. In web standards, years back, there was the end-run around W3C called WHATWG that happened when that one big browser maker grew impatient with the committee process.

Anyway, nothing technically prevents Twitter or any other big social platform from adopting ActivityPub, an established federation protocol which has been around for years now, and has plenty of implementations and literally millions of users. It would just be a bad business move for them, because they don’t control it.

Ironically, ActivityPub isn’t just Mastodon and Pleroma… it’s also the basis for Gab. Right, another walled garden! You didn’t think they built that entire stack yourselves, did you? Andrew Torba never talks about it, but Gab used to be compatible with the rest of the “fediverse”. It was just a Mastodon fork, at first. But then the Mastodon project went out of their way to block Gab servers, being very aggressively hostile and politicized, and after that the implementations started to diverge. I think Torba realized it wasn’t really in his commercial interest to be “open” in that way after all. If you’ve never heard of ActivityPub or Mastodon, chances are it’s because the user base (in the US at least) is, by and large, pretty far left. So there’s that.

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That’s interesting. I’d like to learn more about ActivityPub and also about whether the Bluesky people give any decent reasons at all for not using it.

In a slightly separate line of thinking, let’s assume for the sake of argument for a moment that ActivityPub has everything except widespread adoption; is there any reason that existing social media couldn’t be ported over, say by screen scraping, into something like an ActivityPub client? It seems to me like that might be one of the keys to driving adoption and overcoming network effects without having to be a product backed by a Jack Dorsey… How strong are the walls, really, on all these walled gardens?

ActivityPub is specified and documented here, by the W3C: ActivityPub
You can learn lots about the applications that implement the protocol as well, at their repositories. Besides Mastodon and Pleroma (which are interoperable, both basically Twitter replacements) there is PixelFed for images and PeerTube for videos. And some others.

I’ve looked through the Bluesky project repo and some of their PR material. They appear to not publicly recognize the existence of ActivityPub, which is a little odd if you take them at face value, but completely in line with my “controlled competitor” hypothesis. On the other hand, https://bluesky-community.net links to AP technologies and some other independent cool things like the IPFS-powered Beaker browser and Secure Scuttlebutt. So who knows.

As for your other line of thinking, it’s a great question. The Twitter data API has been notorious for getting more and more difficult to use. In the past there have been many alternative Twitter clients that used the API, but they’ve mostly been cut off or absorbed by Twitter corporate. Basically, the API became seen as a source of revenue, which made them hostile to third-party integrations. For example, they used to do Atom/RSS, but not anymore! I’ve worked with bulk Twitter data before, and it’s not cheap. Nowadays, if you don’t want to pay for Twitter API access, you’re reduced to scraping, in a somewhat adversarial environment. (It’s not enough to just parse the HTML, you need something like Selenium… and then a server to run it on… and then not getting your IPs blocked… anyway, it’s a pain). And you should probably read their service license before building anything serious along those lines. I’m no lawyer, but I bet it’s probably written to exclude unofficial integrations. I don’t know what those “thread reader” sites use, but I’ve seen lots of censored threads disappear off of them when Twitter takes down the original posts, so there must be some kind of deal there.

So, in brief, it’s not a technical issue so much as a business (and, let’s be real, political) thing. Embracing-and-extending Twitter or Facebook would be a good way to kill them, but they’re not exactly going to just go along with that.

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Has anyone else on here been listening to the twitter spaces for Bluesky, or otherwise following the progress of the project/community?

I’ve listened in a bit and plan to do more. It strikes me that if these people really do this in a way that gets broadly adopted then there is something akin to a constitutional convention going on, ie the creation of a new structure of governance to be put in place over a new sphere of human existence, but without the prayers at the beginning of each meeting and with an incredibly small amount of publicity given the importance of what’s happening.

I also think that the presence of real technical problems to be solved is obscuring the fact that by far the most important questions involved are questions of governance and politics. Painting with broad strokes: these people are a bunch of tech nerds. They think technology can solve everything. They’d like to just get the messy human conflict stuff out of the way and all agree about where we need to go and what we need to do (in classic secular humanist fashion, as if there are no meaningful disagreements about deeply meaningful things and everything would work out just fine if we could just get people to stop being bad). Their answers to questions of governance are therefore incredibly juvenile.

As far as I can tell the basic operative principle for the governance of whatever protocol Bluesky is building is twofold: (1) it should be decentralized and (2) (as articulated by Golda at the beginning of this space and I believe also invoked in the past by Jack Dorsey as well) there must be a way to gradually reduce physical harm resulting from use of the protocol… towards a limit point of zero. That’s it. That’s the alpha and omega of what may very well become the nervous system of much of the internet.

So what happens if a group of heathens that doesn’t use the protocol attacks the United States? Imagine if HTTP suddenly in the middle of a war stopped supporting all uses by the US Military because they were leading to too much physical harm. In this scenario the protocol/platform doesn’t “see” the harm caused by the other side and so there is no way for it to counterbalance the harm being caused by the users of the protocol, and it doesn’t have mechanisms to adjudicate legitimate vs. non-legitimate harm anyway, because the goal is just to get rid of all harm. So the party trying to fight a just war may very well get locked out.

Another failure - what of grave moral evils which do not immediately and clearly lead to physical harm? As just one example I don’t think it’s too radical to say that porn is one of the very few things which should be regulated on the internet, and that is not in fact protected by any reasonable understanding of freedom of speech. And yet a protocol which attempts to enable the moderation of content which leads directly to physical harm is likely to have very little ability to moderate it.

Those are just the first two objections which occur to me. But really the fundamental thing is that simple avoidance of physical harm is not and can never be the organizing principle of any reasonable or even basically functional society, let alone any society which wants to order itself towards heaven. Yet that is the principle upon which “Web 3.0” the next generation of the internet, is being built, at least as far as Bluesky is concerned.

That being said, many of these people are at heart sweet, well intentioned, and technically very smart people.

I think we should, ideally in a somewhat organized fashion even, learn everything we possibly can from them and then work our tails off to provide a competitor so that their stupidly configured mechanism of governance does not come to rule the world.

Would love to talk about this with anybody else who is interested. Send me a DM if you want.

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Trouble in paradise!

The Bluesky team has been fighting, it seems:

Mark Nadal is an interesting guy. I haven’t quite been able to pin down where he leans politically. I think it’s pretty heavily libertarian, which is to say there is at least some common ground (more so than with many of the die-hard leftists he’s fighting anyway) between him and us.

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