Sunday, September 24, 2023

Will Elon Musk Continue Funding Twitter’s Most Interesting Side Project?

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Shreya Christina
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Elon Musk finally owns Twitter. While Twitter users are still dissecting what that means to them, we have a general idea: less content moderation, fewer people keep the light on, and perhaps the eventual addition of “app everything” features like payments and reservations for services. But the default Twitter app isn’t the only platform the future Musk is now in control of. Over the past three years, Twitter Inc. also a decentralized social networking project called Bluesky – and it finally seems to be paying off. But under Twitter’s new leadership, with its original champions gone, the future prospects look shaky.

Bluesky was launched under the leadership of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey in 2019, and his initial manager was Parag Agrawal, then CTO of Twitter and later Dorsey’s replacement. The goal was to build a decentralized social networking protocol that could eventually connect to Twitter, making it interoperable with other networks unrelated to the company. To maintain Twitter’s independence as a company, Bluesky was established as an independent entity that produces non-proprietary open source work, even if it was funded by Twitter. blue sky was formally organized as a public benefit LLC headed by software engineer Jay Graber in late 2021, and as of April, it had received $13 million from Twitter.

Shortly after Musk’s takeover bid, Bluesky seemingly expressed confidence that its mission would not change, tweeting that “Twitter’s funding of Bluesky is subject to no qualms except one: that Bluesky must research and develop technologies that support an open and decentralized facilitate public discussion.” Late Thursday, when the acquisition was completed, we received another cautiously optimistic message. “Very curious where Elon Twitter will take. I am very happy that we are independent – we will continue to work on building protocols that make society more resilient to rapid change,” Graber tweeted. “Nobody can buy ’email’ as a platform, and that’s a good thing.”

And while Twitter has seemed to be in turmoil in recent months, Bluesky is making more visible progress than usual. In April, it released the first piece of what it has since dubbed the AT protocol, and last week it opened a waiting list for an app built on the protocol. Whatever Bluesky is building, it looks like we’ll be able to use it relatively quickly.

But despite the guarantees of independence, the Musk acquisition really doesn’t seem like good news for Bluesky. I reached out to Graber for more details on the project’s future, but there’s an obvious caveat to that tweet: Even if no one can buy email as a platform, they can definitely stop paying people to work on it. build. Everyone expects significant belt tightening under Musk’s leadership, and depending on how much the budget crushes, Bluesky could be one of the easiest line items to cut.

Dorsey wished he’d never turned Twitter into a business. So far, Musk seems to like to take the reins

Now that Agrawal and Dorsey are gone, there may be no one left to fight for the project. Bluesky always seemed like a quirky pet cause of Jack Dorsey, and that impression has only grown stronger over time. Dorsey envisioned decentralization as a way to evade increasingly bitter debates about content moderation between lawmakers and policymakers. Decentralized social networking protocols like ActivityPub (which powers Mastodon) already existed, and to the extent that Bluesky has a unique vision, it reflects ideas like Dorsey’s love of “algorithmic choice” or competing social media moderation algorithms. He Musk told in a text message that Twitter “shouldn’t have been a business,” expressing regret for not creating a communications protocol instead — a protocol very similar to Bluesky.

So far I haven’t seen that interest from Musk. Musk thinks Twitter is important for (loosely defined) free speech, but as a self-proclaimed “nano manager” he seems happy to be making that speech to himself and his newly announced content moderation board. Decentralized networks can be harder for governments to censor because there is no single point of contact to pressure, but Musk has said he will “comply with a country’s laws” — meaning he will. want the ability to filter messages as needed.

It would be a shame to lose one of the most interesting things Twitter has done in recent years. Even if you don’t fully endorse Dorsey’s vision — or think it’s in part an area of ​​innovation covered by other open source projects — it’s a positive thing for Musk and Twitter to fund. And if it is doing playing a meaningful role in decentralizing social media that will open up more options for anyone skeptical of Twitter under Musk.

Much interest in Bluesky is driven by the Twitter connection

Musk is nominally intrigued by some sort of decentralization. He announced early plans to make the Twitter “algorithm” “open source”, though he never clearly explained what that means. In the many text messages mentioned above, he told his brother Kimbal that “I think a new social media company is needed that is based on a blockchain and includes payments”, although he concluded that a blockchain-based Twitter “is not possible.” used to be .” But none of that necessarily overlaps with Bluesky’s mission – like Graber noticed on Twitter earlier this month, it specifically does not use blockchain.

Musk could probably adopt some broad ideas from Bluesky. He said Twitter users should set their own levels of offensive content filtering, for example, and Bluesky has a system in place for “speech” (the ability to post something) and “reach” (the ability to show other people it). divide. But Bluesky is real code wouldn’t necessarily be useful – it specifically solves the problem of having many different services connected together, which doesn’t apply if Twitter only sets internal filters.

$13 million isn’t a lot of money by Musk’s standards, and he could conclude that Bluesky has enough potential to maintain funding. But where a Dorsey-run Twitter demands little money, we don’t know what a Musk-run Twitter would demand. If the funding doesn’t come through, Bluesky may have to strike out on its own and seek other funding sources. And Bluesky’s connection to Twitter has sparked interest that many decentralized protocols don’t get. Without it, an uphill path to changing social media will become even steeper.

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