plus/minus epsilon

Twitter's @bluesky Project

1 Feb 2021

More than a year ago, Jack Dorsey announced that he would be funding a project called @bluesky, which would work with the crypto community to create a decentralized standard for social media. He gives a lot of motivation for the project, particularly focusing on the lack of consumer choice in content moderation and amplification. Fundamentally, the core insight of the project is that social media companies are currently a vertical integration of two different services:

  • Content Form and Audience. That is, the basic experience of how content looks, where it's stored, who has access to it, and how people interact with it.
  • Discovery and Moderation. These are the parts of a platform that try to identify which content should be amplified to which users, and which content should be moderated.

and it would be beneficial to users to dis-integrate social media companies such that these two services are rendered separately. This would create the opportunity for competition, and therefore choice, between discovery and moderation mechanisms for a given type of content.

You might ask: why isn't there competition currently? There are multiple social media websites that want my attention, so if one is lacking in discovery/moderation, wouldn't the others out-compete them? The reason competition lacks currently is because social media has winner-take-all dynamics, where the first company to invent a new content form and build an audience for it becomes incredibly difficult to compete against. In one of the controversial emails leaked from Facebook about the acquisition of Instagram, this is exactly the point that Zuckerberg makes:

"There are network effects around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different. It's possible someone beats Instagram by building something that is better to the point that they get network migration, but this is harder as long as Instagram keeps running."

Note that the source of the winner-take-all dynamics has absolutely no relation to discovery or moderation, and in fact, social media monopolies are often cemented before they're even particularly good at either of these things. The original model of both Facebook and Twitter was just to show users all the content from all the users they followed chronologically! It's only recently that people have started to recognize the value of prioritizing content that users genuinely enjoy, and de-amplifying content that's harmful.

This is how we get to dis-integration as an advantage. If a social media company's success is based almost solely on their ability to develop a new social mechanic and build a network around it, then you need a second type of company whose success depends on providing the best access to that network.

Concretely, this probably means making social media look more like the wider web, where you have individual websites that curate content and search engines that direct end-users to what they're interested in. In this context, websites win by having the best version of something users want (creating supply), and search engines win by being the best at knowing what users want (satisfying demand).

The technical difficulty in moving to this model is that while the searchable Internet is in plaintext, the majority of social media content is private, which is what makes @bluesky a cryptography problem.

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