Yesterday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made a theoretically huge announcement: he wanted Twitter to stop being a self-contained platform and start delivering content from a decentralized system, changing social media as we know it. He kicked off the plan by announcing a project called Bluesky, which will fund the independent development of that system. But among many people who already work on decentralized networks, the response was a collective roll of the eyes. Twitter wasn’t boldly stepping into new territory; it was stomping into an existing field with a lot of noise and very little detail.
As soon as Dorsey posted his plan, Mastodon — a decentralized social network founded back in 2016 — gave him the tweeted version of a sarcastic wave.
Developer Darius Kazemi was even more direct. “I hear Twitter wants to invest in creating a new decentralized social media protocol, meanwhile a bunch of us are out here already doing the hard work,” he tweeted, suggesting Twitter could help “approximately 1,000 percent more” by just donating to a few existing projects. Mastodon pointed Dorsey toward ActivityPub, an established protocol that already powers Mastodon and several similar projects.
Through the lens of these tweets, Bluesky’s mission slotted right into a Silicon Valley cliche: a tech company “discovering” some long-standing problem and swooping in with a naive solution. But Bluesky’s situation is a bit more complicated because Twitter hasn’t actually committed to building a new system. In a follow-up tweet, Dorsey said the team might try to find an existing standard to move forward.
As we mentioned, the team will have complete freedom to identify and consider all the great work already done, and if they believe it’s best to work on a pre-existing standard 100%, they will. If not, they’re free to create one from scratch. Their discretion, not Twitter, Inc’s.
— bluesky (@bluesky) December 12, 2019
A later tweet from Bluesky confirmed this. “The team will have complete freedom to identify and consider all the great work already done, and if they believe it’s best to work on a pre-existing standard 100 percent, they will,” it said. “If not, they’re free to create one from scratch.”
But this option also has decentralized social network proponents concerned. It could indicate that Twitter wants to colonize projects like ActivityPub, shaping them into systems that are better for advertisers and worse for users. “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android,” wrote Mastodon in a follow-up tweet.
Sean Tilley, community manager of the early decentralized network Diaspora, was similarly suspicious. “The pessimistic interpretation is that Twitter wants [to join ActivityPub], but also wants to control the standard,” he tweeted.
In an email to The Verge, Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko says there’s reason for developers to be leery of Bluesky. He mentions the “Embrace, Extend, Extinguish” problem — where a huge company adopts an open protocol, becomes its biggest user, and then changes its system to lock everybody else out. (The phrase originated with Microsoft in the ‘90s, and more recently, it’s been applied to Google taking over RSS and the XMPP chat protocol.) While Bluesky isn’t technically part of Twitter, it will almost certainly be organized with Twitter’s goals in mind.
But Rochko also thinks ActivityPub could survive a Twitter takeover attempt. He says the standard was developed partly in response to Twitter’s failings, and many people joined specifically because they disliked Twitter’s massive scale, feature set, and policies. (We’re talking about a platform whose actual users dub it “the hell site.”) So if Twitter joined and later abandoned the standard, there would still be a good reason for users to stick around.
“Twitter adopting ActivityPub would be a good thing and a victory for the web,” Rochko says. “I think we only have something to gain.”
I hear Twitter wants to invest in creating a new decentralized social media protocol, meanwhile a bunch of us are out here already doing the hard work https://t.co/NawdhsUhf4
— Darius Kazemi (@tinysubversions) December 11, 2019
Most Twitter users might not care about web protocols. But Bluesky’s odds of success are a lot higher if it can work with a community of experts instead of against it. As critics have pointed out, decentralization doesn’t automatically solve problems like hate speech and harassment. Communities like Mastodon have hands-on experience dealing with these problems, even if they haven’t solved them. Twitter’s move into decentralization might be self-serving, but if it produces a better alternative to the current platform, that’s good news for millions of users.
Granted, this assumes Bluesky will have any practical effect at all, which critics aren’t taking for granted. Twitter hasn’t even picked a team yet, and the group won’t include more than five people, whom Dorsey says could be working on the project for years. According to my colleague Casey Newton, former Twitter employees predict Bluesky will run at a glacial pace.
So Kazemi, for one, tells The Verge that he’s skeptical anything will happen and that he’s more interested in working on existing platforms like ActivityPub than speculating about Bluesky’s future. “I think there are two different ways to look at this kind of stuff. One way is to take this seriously and assume that they actually mean what they’re saying. If Twitter wants to create their own protocol instead of using what’s already out there, then it’s a naked power move to get control over an area that they’ve traditionally ignored,” he says. “The other way is to not take this seriously at all, which is what I’m inclined to do.”