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Can Bluesky Be Twitter Without Twitter?

The buzz over the all-too-familiar new platform is as much about getting out as in.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer/dpa/picture alliance via Getty Images

Since Elon Musk took over Twitter, it’s gradually become less useful as a way to keep up with things. There’s less urgency around major news events and conversations have become diffuse and inert. Tweets that might be interesting float by one another as non-sequiturs in an algorithmic flow. Meanwhile, Musk seems to be redesigning his social media platform around the needs of his own reply guys.

There was, among Twitter’s most addicted users, an early interest in seeing what would happen — how weird or bad things could get on a platform with which they already had a messy relationship. But the spectacle has been replaced with a grind, and the novelty has worn off.

Bluesky — a Twitter alternative backed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, initially developed within and funded by Twitter, and which bears an extreme resemblance to Twitter — couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The biggest trend on Twitter right now is people begging for invites so that they can finally leave:

Photo: Screencap

The list of services hoping to replace Twitter is very, very long, and spooked users have been eager to test out new platforms. Bluesky, which has been in development for years, but launched an iOS app in February and an Android app in April, is perhaps the most straightforward among them. It looks like Twitter five years ago. It feels like Twitter ten years ago. New users are piling in, joking around, breaking things, and occasionally being terrible to each other in a familiar environment where it also feels like nothing matters much, yet. People are able to interact with one another in Twitter-like ways, without adapting to new norms or metaphors or designs. It gives a good first impression, if you’re into this sort of thing, which its users clearly are. It’s close to achieving a critical mass of Twitter’s most terminally online users, for better or for worse.

Bluesky is in private beta — hence the hustling for invites — until its content moderation tools are built out, but its waitlist is more than a million users long, its apps have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and, crucially, some of Twitter’s most addicted users are jonesing for a taste. While most Twitter alternatives offer a twist on the concept — Twitter but with more tools to monetize; Twitter but for conservatives; Twitter but with no algorithms — the interest in Bluesky suggests some value in the simplest approach: Twitter but not Twitter.

That, at least, is how it looks and feels to new users signing up today. In truth, Bluesky’s but is significant. The company, which was spun out of Twitter as a public benefit corporation in 2022, is working on a decentralized system, called the AT protocol, on which social media applications can be built and run independently. Bluesky is a proof of concept, or as Bluesky CEO Jay Graber calls it, a “reference client for developers” as well as a “landing place for users to see how a decentralized social app can be pleasant to use, customizable, performant, and safe.” In theory, at least, you’ll be able to build lots of Twitter clones on it, or a TikTok clone, or something new over which you and your users would have considerable control. (If this sounds a bit like Mastodon, which has been around far longer than Musk has owned Twitter, that’s because the concepts are fundamentally very similar — and Mastodon’s developers are not thrilled.)

Dorsey outlined this concept back in 2019, when he was still running Twitter:

Things have changed a bit since then. The prospect of for-profit Twitter rebuilding itself on an open platform was always unlikely, but Musk’s instinct since taking over has been to close things down as much as possible, cutting off developers, charging for access to the platform, and lashing out at perceived competitors like Mastodon and Substack.

Bluesky’s approach is interesting, and its diagnosis of Twitter’s root problems — it was an important service controlled by a company whose interests did not align with its users’, and which eventually decided to sell itself to Elon Musk — is reasonable. And Bluesky’s decision to go forward with what will be seen by users as direct Twitter competitor is almost funny, given its financial ties with the company. What’s driving Twitter users there now, however, is mostly an overwhelming urge to get out, as well as the lure of a private party. Sure, Twitter was kind of a disaster from the start and it only ever seemed to get worse, but maybe this time it’ll be different.

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Can Bluesky Be Twitter Without Twitter?