Everything happening on Bluesky, Twitter’s most chaotic successor
Early last week, barely anyone had heard of Bluesky. On Wednesday, it was just one of many alternatives vying for attention as users grow increasingly dissatisfied with how the new regime is running Twitter. By Thursday, Bluesky — still in an invite-only beta — had seen an unprecedented jump in number of users, had attracted the (positive) attention of several notable politicians and celebrities, and had gotten a pundit besieged by angry, unblockable posts.
What’s happening on Bluesky isn’t a secret — screencaps of its madcap, exuberant weekend are all over Twitter. But an invite is necessary to really experience the pandemonium. The question What’s it really like over there? is essentially what is driving user growth. From inside these garden walls, among the 55,000 users, I can tell you it’s absolutely wild. Yet within the madness, there’s an ongoing, increasingly weird struggle to establish norms, boundaries, and general vibes. Also, a lot of naked butts.
In the midst of the chaos on Thursday, the CEO took a moment to beg people to please stop calling posts “skeets” — a putative amalgam of “sky” and “tweet,” but really mostly a slangy reference to seminal emissions. (The interface itself only refers to posts as posts.) Unfortunately, this plea from on high only provoked users — many of whom were from the most recent influx of Twitter refugees — to insist that posts were definitely skeets.
By Monday, CNN anchor Jake Tapper would ask his guests to respond to a statement made by Sen. Brian Schatz, the first — but not only — US senator on Bluesky. “Senator Brian Schatz, just, uh, skeeted, on Bluesky,” said Tapper live on air before reading the skeet out loud.
In the midst of this meteoric rise, the relatively small team at Bluesky has been grappling with an endless series of problems — some of which are extremely niche (garrulous AI accounts that make threads of replies run so long that the app or website will error out) and some of which are extremely predictable (people constantly posting their butts).
Although Bluesky is currently hosted on only one server under the control of the Bluesky team, its intention is to eventually become a decentralized protocol for a multiplicity of federated servers with a variety of different moderation practices. (The plan is to make moderation customizable through a system of labels for posts. Yes, there are a great many questions raised by this proposal.)
The developers had been “juggling” between federation and moderation as priorities, CEO Jay Graber said via her Bluesky account on Thursday night, only a couple of hours after asking people to stop calling posts skeets. The platform is admittedly without a number of standard features that help curb harassment. When the user base suddenly jumped in size, the block function had not yet been added.
This was not ideal for anyone, but it was especially not ideal for pundit and blogger Matt Yglesias, formerly of Vox.com and now a successful Substack writer. On Twitter, Yglesias has a history of stating a lot of opinions — some benign, some offensive, all immensely dunkable. It’s not clear exactly what riled people up on Bluesky about Yglesias, though some cited his attitude toward trans rights issues. Regardless, on Thursday, his posts were under fire, with over a hundred replies ranging from merely hostile to descriptively violent. “WE ARE GOING TO BEAT YOU WITH HAMMERS,” said one user going by “hannah :)” who identified herself as a teen girl.
What is or isn’t online harassment is a tricky distinction, but platforms frequently draw the line at direct calls to violence, even if the tone is one of shitposting. (Hannah cheerfully posted that she was engaged in “coordinated harassment,” a category of bannable offense on Twitter.) She could not be reached for comment, as she was banned shortly thereafter.
Graber described it as “[taking] down several accounts from our server,” adding that those users would be “welcome to join elsewhere in the federation and perhaps reconnect with us after we exit beta.” A number of people added a hammer emoji to their username in solidarity with Hannah.
But even with the defenestration of the hammer brigade, people continued to yell at Matt Yglesias, who continued to be unable to block them.
Within 24 hours, the Bluesky developers had deployed a change to their codebase that added blocking as a function. It worked immediately in the browser version, but the update to the iOS app — which was supposed to arrive on Saturday — got held up in the App Store. According to a post by Bluesky developer Paul Frazee, Apple wanted to do a deeper review, perhaps because of the platform’s suddenly high profile.
Yet even as the developers heroically sprinted to save Yglesias, the service was straining under something that would become known as “the hellthread” — an unending series of stringed replies fueled by auto-replying bot accounts and users who were incredibly amused by the prospect of jumping headfirst into a JSON error.
Participating in the hellthread would sign you up for an unspeakable number of notifications, and attempts to mute the thread for yourself were mostly futile since something about the AI accounts would unmute them anyway. Users tried to bait each other by tagging them in. (This, of course, meant they themselves were now in hell.) Delighted in part by seeing the CEO herself good-naturedly participate before publicly notifying her devs of what kind of bugs she was seeing, others began to post their nudes right into the hellthread until it was nothing but asses and errors.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrived on Bluesky on Thursday, as did the internet’s most revered poster, @dril. CNN’s Jake Tapper showed up, followed by MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan and Chris Hayes. “Real psycho hours, just how we like it,” Hayes skeeted, impressed by the terrifying chaos unfolding on the feed.
Chelsea Manning was extolling the virtues of decentralization. Director Rian Johnson demanded to see the hellthread. Abbott Elementary’s Quinta Brunson arrived and then was briefly, incorrectly flagged as fake, which wreathed her avatar with a hot pink exclamation mark. An account for the Pope was also flagged as fake (correctly).
There were big names doing strange things, but for the most part, the feed was non-famous people making jokes, being weird, and posting their butts. Even with the service breaking down sporadically, blocks still being nonexistent on the iOS app, and unclothed ass everywhere, the mood was jubilant and upbeat. “It honestly feels euphoric to experience a platform without a swarm of hate groups constantly hunting every post,” Ocasio-Cortez posted. Rian Johnson put it more concisely in one of his posts — “This is funner than Twitter.”
The small size of the platform was initially confusing for power users and, for many, came as a relief. There was an audience, sure, but it was so much tinier and so much more positive than on Twitter (except to Matt Yglesias) that it was easy to relax, let loose, and really start posting.
A person who might be used to seeing their tweets rack up a hundred retweets in an hour was in for an emotional learning curve. The “What’s Hot” tab, a universal feed of most-interacted-with content, regardless of whether you follow the poster, included posts with as few as 15 likes. The funniest, most irony-poisoned posters of the internet were now unironically and joyfully posting and reposting pictures of dogs, cats, and pet pigs and were perfectly happy to get just a handful of likes and replies.
Without the relentless din of conflict and harassment that propagates throughout Twitter, posting on Bluesky tended to be less adversarially flavored, though drama and discourse were, of course, inevitable. (Over the weekend, users became embroiled in a debate over whether New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie had gone too far by quote-skeeting someone who was being persistently obnoxious in his replies.)
People tend to invite other people in their communities. (For example, I invited journalists, my own local media, and because I thought it would be funny, also Brian Schatz.) At some point in the invite tree, the invitations had begun to skew heavily toward the trans community — possibly because trans users were the most desperate to get away from Twitter, where moderation policies and practices have shifted away from protecting them from harassment.
On Saturday, a user arrived seemingly hellbent on starting trouble. Bluesky was soon in an uproar as ryanlee made their way from person to person, offending and denigrating every trans user they could find. They were banned, and Graber announced, “Nobody has a right to access an invite-only closed beta, and if they are creating an account exclusively to jump in and harass people in replies they will be removed.” Unlike with Hannah of the hammers, she did not remind anyone that ryanlee could possibly return in the federated future.
The trans community of Bluesky celebrated by enthusiastically posting nudes.
As interest exploded in the invite-only Bluesky, some unscrupulous people began to brute force codes to get into the beta. Invites had to be revoked and reissued in a more secure format, and the flow of invites has slowed tremendously. On eBay, codes were being listed for up to $400. Author William Gibson resorted to begging on Twitter for an invite.
The desirability of access to Bluesky has increased in proportion to the precarity of the service. As more and more high-profile users flock to Bluesky, the more eyes are on its various weaknesses. Twitter at its height had about 7,500 employees; Bluesky’s internal Slack has 12 users total.
On Monday, a technical advisor to the Bluesky team announced that they would now be implementing a “no boobs (or dicks, or asses) on whats hot” policy, referring to what will surface in the “What’s Hot” tab. When asked for clarification, he said posts would be filtered through AI to detect nudity.
Some of the road bumps ahead are obvious to the casual observer of human nature (people will continue to post butts). For people like Micah Schaffer (former Trust & Safety at YouTube, Snap) and Yoel Roth (former head of Trust & Safety at Twitter), Bluesky is — in some cases, at least — speedrunning the mistakes of its predecessors.
Over the weekend, Schaffer noted that Bluesky’s registration page was not compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule. On Tuesday morning, Roth posited that removing nudity from the default timeline was likely a move to satisfy reviewers at the App Store. “They famously love to do a crack down on user-generated content apps that are a little too horny on main,” he wrote. (Two hours later, Frazee had good news: “📢 iOS users! The app update with blocking has finally passed review! It should be available now.”)
Is there a meaningful difference between full-on, policy-driven human moderation of harassment versus removing someone from a closed beta while a grand scheme to automate moderation is still in the works? Can Bluesky actually be said to be a service provider and a builder of a protocol rather than just another platform, albeit with an anemic Trust & Safety department? And what on earth is federation even going to look like?
The thing people like the most about Bluesky seems to be the energy — a slippery, ever-changing thing, wholly reliant on fortune’s whims. Ocasio-Cortez isn’t there because she’s excited about AI-driven, label-heavy moderation tools or the future of federation; she’s there because she (apparently) likes posting about Stardew Valley and complimenting strangers’ dresses. Will Bluesky ever reach its final form without killing its own vibe?
The forecast is on the cloudy side.
But even someone like Yoel Roth, who has Seen Some Shit and knows the rough terrain ahead, is out there Posting up a storm. “Yoel do you think Bluesky can replace twitter or no?” writer Molly Jong-Fast asked him on Bluesky.
“I sure as fuck hope so,” Roth replied.