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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

BlueSky Ain’t It

“Don’t forget to turn ‘Nazis’ off in your preferences!” a friend told me when I asked for advice about Bluesky Social, the latest fad in Twitter clones. She was referring to its series of toggles for personalized moderation. You can “hide,” “warn” about, or “show” various categories of posts, like “Spam,” three different classes of sexual imagery, and, as my friend alluded to, “Hate Groups.” It’s the first sign that this is not old-fashioned, pre-Musk Twitter. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you valued most about that era. Don’t tell that to some of the site’s biggest boosters, however.

“[J]ack selling twitter for $44b and then starting the same website and poaching all its users is so fucking funny to me like literally lmao,” reads a representative tweet on the matter. And it is indeed funny. Except it’s not the same website. Its decentralized design as a “protocol” rather than a “platform” has much more in common with Mastodon, which briefly absorbed a Twitter exodus before becoming an object of derision for what many saw as its excessive complexity and stuffy culture.

For the moment, Bluesky is easier to use, and its median culture is infinitely more freewheeling, at least on the surface. In a major coup, it attracted veteran posters like US representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and the civic god of Twitter known as dril, as well as a gaggle of shitposters. But while that has set a tone for the site that feels liberating and free of the prejudice Elon Musk has unleashed, it is far from clear that this platform will become the next Twitter; if the developers have their way, it won’t.

To get to the heart of the problem, we have to talk about why so many journalists are excited about the shitposter migration, starting with what shitposting actually is. It’s a classic I-know-it-when-I-see-it phenomenon, but in brief it can be defined as satirical content that is of "aggressively, ironically, and trollishly poor quality." Though Merriam-Webster puts the term’s origins in the early 90’s, it was popularized in its current form by 4chan in the aughts and has since come to be a catchall term for posts that evince a kind of Dadaist refusal to take an unserious world seriously. At least, at its best. It can also just describe a lot of casual bigotry, mocking harassment, or ceaseless ironizing that foments cynical complacency. But commentators are not wrong to suggest that the presence of such posters is part of a vibrant (if not necessarily healthy) ecosystem on a large, centralized platform.

Not everyone is happy about the shitposter influx. Conservative commentator David Frum lamented that he only wanted to meet “smart/interesting/amusing” people and did not want “weirdos” and “psychopaths” popping up on his feed, referring to the shitposters being praised in a TechCrunch article he was quote-tweeting. 

NBC tech journalist Ben Collins replied: “You do want weirdos. They’re the line of defense against the people who ruin everything. It’s why the big places—like TikTok and YouTube and Reddit and here previously—worked. They’re an enforcement mechanism that allows for better conversations and shoos away hate.”

This brings me back to Bluesky’s aspirations. The moderation toggles are just the start. A key goal of Bluesky Social is that it be decentralized—people linked across independently owned servers that use the AT Protocol protocol, with the Bluesky UI/UX overlaying it all. Crucially, users and servers will be able to label posts or specific users—e.g., with a tag like “racist”—and anyone can subscribe to that list of labels, blocking posts on that basis. Bluesky calls this “composable moderation.”

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That’s the thing that many people on either side of this debate don’t seem to fully grasp: If Bluesky’s composable moderation works as intended at scale, Frum will get his wish, more or less. He likely won’t meet as many “smart, interesting, amusing” people randomly. But he’ll definitely get rid of the “weirdos.” With all the consequences that entails for the pro-shitposting crowd. 

It was a popular demand of Twitter users that we only see those we follow, or have a fully chronological timeline; Bluesky will give that to you. There’s also the “What’s Hot?” feed, which is algorithmic—and just banned nudes. (What’s hot? Not you, apparently.) But the more people adopt the longed-for non-algorithmic timeline and who use its composable moderation features, the less Bluesky will be like Twitter, in ways its most enthusiastic boosters are simply not ready for.

Twitter was always best understood as an electric boulevard of serendipity and sin. This was the source of all misery on the platform, and its myriad joys and benefits. What Bluesky is proposing is the abolition of serendipity. At the very least, Bluesky’s proposed design would erode it to such a degree that the very things Collins describes as an ecological benefit of shitposting culture will, invariably, fail to occur. You can’t taunt pompous jackasses with dril memes if they can’t see them, after all.  

Before Musk, Twitter had become a cultural engine on par with Something Awful a generation before it, and a more diverse one at that; one where trans shitposters and Black Twitter could have outsize influence on public discourse and mock their would-be oppressors in the open thunderdome the platform provided. But this did not provide a sanitary function for the platform—if mocking bigots worked to truly defeat them, the world would’ve been saved long ago. (And, to name one of Collins’ examples, Reddit’s freewheeling nature has spawned no end of the worst kinds of abuse, whether in the form of internecine warfare between subreddits, or with subreddits that act as staging grounds for abuse off of the platform.) 

On the flip side, it was Twitter’s boulevard of serendipity that gave shitposters such cultural power in the first place, because the rest of Twitter couldn’t help but be exposed frequently to the most viral shitposts. Journalists, academics, and other professionals who were Extremely Online enough (and oh-so-many are, to the detriment of us all) were constantly flashed with this stuff, lending it currency and power. This is how we have the grotesquerie of a right-wing senator in his fifties calling his personal Twitter alt @BasedMikeLee. It’s hard to see how we’re gainers from this sort of thing. 

This is the dynamic that made Twitter shitposting what it was: We were all forced to participate. Twitter, because of its very design as a centralized space, was a unique forum for this kind of behavior. 

If Bluesky’s composable moderation works, and if it truly becomes the open protocol it promises, the entire point is that there won’t be one boulevard, but something closer to Melbourne’s famous laneways. Distinctive, narrower, a little wilder, but a lot smaller and broken up all over the internet’s vast city. That’s the dream here, after all. The goal is fragmentation, the very opposite of what made Twitter what it was. 

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There are upsides, of course. Even my cold academic heart can’t deny the joyous relief of my trans sisters and siblings who made it onto the Bluesky open beta and express enormous relief at how much better the environment is there. How could it not be, when a recent post by an MMA fighter openly musing about publicly executing any cis person who helps trans people was greeted by dozens of Muskian blue-checks enthusiastically agreeing—saying the idea was “based”? Anything is better than the indignity of laying eyes on such a bloodthirsty gaggle for even a few seconds. 

But I remember lots of people saying the same thing about Post, Hive, and Mastodon not a few months ago, myself included. Witnessing inter-server warfare destroy a whole, brand-new Mastodon instance primarily populated by trans women was a cruel reminder of how dangerous it is to think that honeymoons last forever—or that the safety of marginalized people is a simple matter of running. The fragmentation will, perhaps, isolate that toxicity to each of its respective layers of hell in the form of separate servers, preventing a measure of virality, but it will still exist—as Mastodon has abundantly proven with its rampant hostility to its Black users.

The goals of Bluesky’s owners are noble indeed, and even comport with some of my own wishes for social media—for it to be broken up, individualized, and made more resilient against interference from states or malicious plutocrats like Elon Musk. But they may not be compatible with the precise dream of so many of these shitposters; especially the marginalized ones. If Bluesky lives up to its promises, the various and sundry right-wing “culture warriors” and other crypto-fascists might find themselves behind a permanent block that cannot be undone by corporate chicanery. But those same mechanisms will also, of necessity, put up barriers between diverse communities, hiding many of them from those same radically minded shitposters, and in the process making it impossible to recreate Twitter’s serendipity.

To tell the truth, I’ll miss it all a little. But that serendipity also made us nodding acquaintances with every layer of hell the internet could provide. The casualness with which you might meet random witty people was also the same degree with which you could brush up against videos of people being shot dead by cops or bombed to death in Ukraine. The sheer amount of snuff available on Twitter is an indictment, and as much a consequence of Twitter’s boulevard-like structure as anything else. The platform was a bold experiment that gave us a lot of beautiful, funny moments, political education, and private benefits for many individuals. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that we’d all have been better off without it.

I find myself reflecting here on a tragically forgotten bit of editorial commentary from 1987 by journalist Ron Powers about the then recent suicide of Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer—committed live, on-camera, in the wake of his conviction for accepting bribes. Powers briefly analyzed the various ways that different news outlets covered the suicide, what they showed and what they hid from viewers, concluding that, overall, a certain decency had been upheld. Powers concluded, “If an on-camera suicide were just another image in an image medium, it would mean … the culture had ceased to believe that anything was either important or trivial."

When I first heard that line from Powers, my breath caught, simply because I knew in my bones that that dark future had come. What could be a better descriptor of Twitter than a realm where its users had ceased to believe anything was either important or trivial? For all its joys, that is the idiom of shitposting; sincere belief is to be mummified by irony, lest you appear an uncool “moralfag,” in the parlance of the platform that gave rise to the form: 4chan.

Why should we exalt attempts to recreate this in yet another online space? That, in the end, feels like what some people want to build on Bluesky, after all. But if Bluesky’s AT Protocol succeeds, it would be a rather different experience, with the important and trivial hemmed in by their respective laneways. And the boulevard would, finally, go dark.

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