Part One: The decline of Twitter and the rise of Mastodon
[Skip ahead to Part Two if you just want to read about Bluesky.]
Since Elon Musk purchased Twitter, the platform has experienced rapid decline. Musk reinstated accounts that had been banned, dismissed the team responsible for ensuring user saftey, undermined the account verification system to the point that having a blue check became a “badge of shame,” and altered the algorithm in arbitrary and self-serving ways, such as downranking posts about Ukraine and amplifying his own posts.
And all that is just since Musk took over, but many of Twitter’s problems are not new. Long before Musk took over the reins, I had noticed that — even though I had close to twenty thousand followers — I would often only get one or two likes on most of my posts, unless they were particularly controversial or snarky. This aligns with studies which showed that the algorithm was geared towards “amplifying inflammatory political rhetoric, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and flat out lies.” I didn’t like the ways this subtle feedback seemed to push me to write in a different way.
Twitter seemed to particularly downgrade the type of post I most enjoy reading and posting: tweets that share links to informative news stories. In fact, the only way I could gain any traction on Twitter was to write longer threads with the link buried at the bottom. To be fair, I have to do the same thing on Facebook, where I hide the external links in comments. The rationale for this is clear: they want users to stay on the site, where they will see more advertisements. External links lead users away.
For these reasons I had already joined Mastodon soon after its initial release in 2016. Even then, I had noticed some of the issues which continue to deter new users. (I’ll get back to those in Part Two.) But the biggest issue was simply the lack of people on that platform. So I was delighted when Twitter started to implode, because it Mastodon’s user base by a couple of million. That is still small compared to Twitter’s global user base, but my experience is similar to other Mastodon users:
J Logan Carey, an illustrator, has a much smaller following on Mastodon than he did on Twitter, “but people seem to actually see the things I post on there whereas on Twitter I feel like everything gets algorithmically squashed unless you’re a brand or a celebrity”, he says. Brett Elliff, a systems engineer, says he has been “really loving” Mastodon after using it for a few months: “I only see what I want to follow, and there are actual conversations happening instead of people shouting into the ether.” And Tiffany Li, a technology attorney and law professor, says Mastodon’s small user base “means that there are fewer trolls and generally unpleasant people”.
I’m still enjoying Mastodon a lot, though I do understand that it can be confusing for new users - especially those who expect everything to work just like it did on Twitter. To help people navigate the transition, I even wrote a guide to assist new users. And for people who simply refuse to make the switch, I discovered the site “bird.makeup” which allows me to create pseudo-accounts for them on Mastodon…
So, until a month or ago, that is where I was: happily “tooting” away on Mastodon, and then … Bluesky happened. In the next section I will discuss what Bluesky is, and how it is both similar to and different from Mastodon.
Part Two: The different philosophies driving Bluesky and Mastodon
I have to start this section with a caveat. Right now users visiting Bluesky Social aren’t going to see anything that resembles Mastodon in the slightest. In fact, it mostly feels like the early days of Twitter, before they even implemented hashtags. (By the way, the guy who came up with hashtags has now left Twitter.) And even though many minorities are fleeing there from Twitter to avoid the flood of hate unleashed by Musk’s changes, the only reason why Bluesky is better right now is that it’s an exclusive club due to the limited number of invites being handed out during the closed beta. Most of the actual moderation and trust and safety tools that are promised haven’t been implemented yet. Jay Caspian Kang’s description isn’t too far off:
Bluesky looks like what you’d get if a tornado hit Twitter and the only people left posting were tech workers, extremely online shitposters with anime avatars and vaguely socialist politics, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who, as far as I can tell, is the most famous person on the platform.
But even if Bluesky doesn’t look like much yet, the ideas behind it are very interesting, and while it borrows a lot from Mastodon, there are some key differences as well.
I believe this matters greatly. Social media infrastructure has become as crucial for the functioning of democracy as the existence of a free press. I would go so far as to say that having access to social media that is free of hate and lies should be viewed as a human right, akin to having access to clean water. The problem is that nobody has figured out how to achieve this just yet. Do we give all the power to private corporations answerable to shareholders? Do we trust algorithms to make decisions for us? Do we set up small fiefdoms, each run according to their own rules? These are just some of the questions that people are grappling with, and Bluesky and Mastodon have each answered these questions in similar, but different, ways.
When we talk about “Mastodon” and “Bluesky,” we are essentially discussing the most public faces of two very different underlying technologies. It’s a bit like using “Gmail” to talk about email. Email isn’t a technology so much as it is a set of standards, or “protocols,” for sharing information that can be implemented by different apps, allowing them to communicate with each other. For email, the protocols are called things like “SMTP” and “IMAP.” During the early days of the internet, users needed to know what these were in order to configure their email clients. Thanks to Gmail, this is no longer necessary for most users. Similarly, you don’t need to know the names of the underlying protocols to use Mastodon and Bluesky, but understanding them is essential to discerning the philosophical differences between the two.
Mastodon is built on the “ActivityPub” protocol, but it is far from the only app using it. Other notable projects include PeerTube for video streaming, Pixelfed which is similar to Instagram, Reddit clones, and many more. Moreover, existing sites such as Wordpress and Tumblr which power many of the most popular blogs are implementing ActivityPub support. (A large list of ActivityPub projects can be found here.) Because these sites all support the same protocol, you can follow accounts on one site from any of the others. And some of these other sites, like Pleroma and micro.blog are also Twitter-like social media sites that have different feature sets from Mastodon but still use ActivityPub. In other words, they talk to each other. So, this leaves us with the million-dollar question: why did Bluesky build its own protocol rather than using ActivityPub like all these other sites?
This is the question I wanted to answer when I started researching this, and I’m still not sure I have a good answer. Part of the problem is that currently the only thing built on top of Bluesky’s “AT” protocol right now is Bluesky itself. They hope to build out a similar ecosystem to ActivityPub later on, but right now we have nothing to go on except for Bluesky’s vision statements, and I’m not 100% sure we can take those at face value. After all, Bluesky started off as a side project at Twitter and the main investor is Twitter’s former CEO, Jack Dorsey — the guy who (then) thought Elon Musk could save Twitter! Despite my initial skepticism, however, I’ve warmed up to Bluesky. This is in large part due to following their CEO Jay Graber on Bluesky and reading things she’s said on her blog or in interviews. Jay and her team are Bluesky and I think it is a mistake to assume Jack is pulling (all) the strings.
So, let’s get down to brass tacks and look at how AT differs from ActivityPub.
Part Three: AT vs. ActivityPub
I often use the email analogy to explain how Mastodon works. Just like you can sign up for email with your own institution, Google, or Apple, etc. and still communicate with people using email at other servers, you can sign up for different Mastodon “instances” and still follow and communicate with people whose accounts are hosted elsewhere. For this reason, it really doesn’t matter that much where you first sign up. In fact, in order to simplify things, Mastodon has now made it so new users are no longer forced to choose their own server right away. That should make the service more popular than ever, and you can always switch later on if you like.
But here’s the thing, which server you are on does matter. For one thing, different servers use different versions of the software, so the features available to you might be different. For the longest time I was confused about tech support I was receiving until I realized that my old server hadn’t updated the software. Fortunately, it is fairly easy to switch servers and my new server, zirk.us, is well run. But when you switch, your address changes, just like people’s email addresses might change if they switch jobs. That’s why, when I was still a graduate student, I bought my own domain: so people could still reach me no matter where I was studying or working, or which company I was using to host my email. My domain is also in the URL for this blog and for my homepage: oxus.net.
One of my longest-standing complaints about Mastodon is that they don’t let you do this, unless you host your own Mastodon server, which is a lot of work. Why does it matter? For a couple of reasons. First off, while it is true that you can follow people on any server, some servers are focused on a particular topic and have their own “local” feed which you need to be a member to follow. Right now, that means creating a new account and switching accounts. And people who follow that account won’t see the posts associated with your main identity. It is also annoying because you can’t easily see who people follow or follow people on other servers. Actually there is no technical reason why not, and some third party apps have implemented workarounds to make this easier, but the Mastodon admins have deliberately made this difficult. I think their thinking is that this limits harassment? (I’m not actually sure.)
But the problems don’t just stop there, and that’s because of how moderation is handled on Mastodon, in which each server has its own rules and procedures. As far as this gives people more choice, this is great, and is a major selling point of Mastodon. In practice, however, what do you do about poorly run servers that allow hate speech or SPAM to flourish? Here, the practice is something called “defederation,” where other instances stop linking to anyone on that server. This means that even if you’ve done nothing wrong you might find yourself cut off from people you follow because they (or you yourself) are on a server that ran afoul of community norms elsewhere in the “fediverse” (as the network of servers is called).
The practice of defederation in the Fediverse is also problematic. Any Mastodon server admins can decide to cut ties with another instance entirely, rendering posts from the blocked instance unavailable for its users and preventing users of the blocked instance from commenting, replying or direct messaging their users… Defederation as a last-ditch nuclear option to block instances because of spam or abuse is fine. But when the blocklist becomes a protest to other instances’ moderation policy or capacity, endless infighting is warranted.
I personally tend to think these concerns are a bit overblown. As large organizations like Mozilla get into the game of managing and moderating Mastodon instances, I believe users will find that moderation decisions become more transparent and predictable.
However, I was still pleased to discover that Bluesky allows me to use my own domain as my user handle. As it turns out, this is one of the key factors that led the Bluesky team to develop their own protocol.
the Bluesky team spent much of the past two years developing something called the AT Protocol, a “federated” network that allows servers to communicate with one another at a speed that can keep up with the extreme volume of a social-media site. “If centralized platforms are governed like monarchies, federated networks are governed like little feudal societies,” Jay Graber, the C.E.O. of Bluesky, explained in a recent speech. “There isn’t just one king ruling over the whole network, but there are smaller lords who still have absolute power over their domain.” To combat the prospect of a factionalized and chaotic system, in which entire communities can disappear at the whims of their “lords,” Bluesky hopes to offer what they call portability, in which dissatisfied users can take their data, contacts, and identity, and go elsewhere.
Where Mastodon allows you to migrate between servers, switching to a new identity and bringing along your followers, Bluesky aims to enable you to retain your old identity as you move from one server to another. This isn’t just about identity portability, though; it’s also a fundamentally different way of handling moderation.
As Chu Ka-Cheong writes, Bluesky’s idea is that moderation will be separated into three different layers. The first layer will be a “composable labeling system, enabling anyone to define and apply ‘labels’ to content or accounts (such as ‘spam’ or ‘nsfw’).” The second layer will consist of custom rules on each server for handling these labels. The third layer will be individual user settings for the display of such labels. How well this will function remains to be seen. Mastodon already has powerful tools for filtering what you see on your timeline at the user level, but such user-level tools don’t necessarily protect users against harassment. For instance, popular Twitter users have been known to rally their followers to attack people they disagree with, so merely blocking the original user might not suffice. Bluesky envisions an ecosystem of different AI-driven algorithms to handle situations like these, but since none of this is in place just yet, we can’t judge whether it will outperform Twitter’s approach (or at least what that approach looked like before Musk took over), which involved outsourcing this work to underpaid tech workers in low-income countries.
While Bluesky’s AT is envisioned as a decentralized protocol, it remains to be seen just how decentralized it will truly be. Digital human rights activist Michał “rysiek” Woźniak suggests that “BlueSky is cosplaying decentralization.”
The rule of thumb with search and recommendation algorithms is: the bigger, the better. The more data you have and the more compute you get to throw at it, the better your recommendations will be. So it’s a winner-takes-all system that strongly avantages whoever starts building their dataset early and can throw as much money at it as possible… And once you’re the biggest game in town, people will optimize for you (just look at SEO and Google Search). It won’t matter much that people using the network can freely choose a different algorithm, just as it doesn’t matter much on the Web that people can choose a different search engine.
Like I said, I’ve been quite impressed with the Bluesky team’s online presence, and I believe their intentions are genuine. However, I also think it’s far too early to determine whether they can actually deliver on their promises, or whether what they’re proposing will resemble the algorithmic utopia they envision. (And I think a healthy dose of skepticism in this regard is warranted.) Right now, Mastodon reminds me a lot of the early days of the web, and I believe it functions pretty well, despite some rough patches. Bluesky, on the other hand, remains an enigma.