Bluesky, Twitter’s decentralized social networking effort, has announced its first major update since 2019. The Bluesky team released a review of the decentralized web ecosystem and said it’s hoping to find a team lead in the coming months. The review follows Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey discussing Bluesky earlier this month, when he called it a “standard for the public conversation layer of the internet.”
The review outlines a variety of known decentralized systems. It includes ActivityPub, known for powering the social network Mastodon; the messaging standard XMPP, which powers WhatsApp and the now-defunct Google Talk; and Solid, a decentralization project led by World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The report covers how these systems handle key social network elements like discoverability, moderation, and privacy, as well as how services based on them can scale up, interoperate, and make money.
Working virtually through the pandemic, this group self-organized, invited additional experts, and created a review of the ecosystem around protocols for social media. You can read it here: https://t.co/U5DczWX1qb— bluesky (@bluesky) January 21, 2021
This doesn’t tell us how Bluesky itself might operate. Dorsey said that Bluesky would “take time to build.” If it results in a protocol, that system might be created from scratch, or it might build on an existing standard like ActivityPub — a possibility Dorsey mentioned in 2019 upon unveiling the initiative. “We are trying to do our part by funding an initiative around an open decentralized standard for social media. Our goal is to be a client of that standard for the public conversation layer of the internet,” he tweeted simply.
However, the report offers a snapshot of who’s been working on Bluesky. It was authored by Jay Graber, creator of event-organizing platform Happening. Other contributors include Mastodon developer Eugen Rochko, peer-to-peer Beaker Browser co-creator Paul Frazee, ActivityPub standard co-editor Christopher Lemmer Webber, and InterPlanetary File System project lead Molly Mackinlay.
It also hints at the fact that decentralization often isn’t profitable. The report focuses on monetization options like membership fees and cryptocurrency microtransactions, but it also notes that “many decentralized projects run on volunteer work and donations” — something that isn’t ideal for a platform supporting commercial networks like Twitter. That said, platforms have worked on systems like the Brave browser’s Basic Attention Token, a cryptocurrency-based system for sharing ad revenue.
Given the long gap between Bluesky’s announcement and this early step, we may not see Twitter’s plans for a universal standard anytime soon, let alone see Twitter adopt that standard. As some decentralized developers mentioned in 2019, Twitter could also potentially do more good by contributing resources to existing projects — not trying to spearhead a unified standard. However, the new paper signals that Bluesky is trying to build on what people in the field have already discovered... even if we don’t know where it might go from there.