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Arts And Culture

The Internet Isn’t Meant To Be So Small

The Bluesky app can be seen on a smartphone. The service of the Twitter alternative Bluesky can only be used with invitations so far, so that the infrastructure is not overloaded in one go.
Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/picture alliance via Getty Images

Because my brain was infested with worms at a very early age, I value continuity of username across platforms more than my own sanity. I have used the same username since AIM, and god help me, I will not lose it. My username has served me well through Neopets and Xanga and Livejournal and LikeALittle and Yo. It has survived far longer than the dozens of different "hot new apps" on which I have used it. To maintain the same username for so long, you have to adopt early, and so of course I've already signed up for the two new sexy apps: Lemon8 and Bluesky. I had to get my username!

Both Lemon8 and Bluesky are imitations of apps that are already popular. Lemon8 is TikTok's new competitor to Instagram. And Bluesky is the new competitor to Twitter, endorsed by one of Twitter's original founders Jack Dorsey. It's funny to call these apps competitors when they are more correctly just replicas with only very slight deviations from their inspirations. Though the way these platforms are built is different than their inspirations, as a user they function identically. It's the equivalent of being handed a Target brand tissue. Looks like a Kleenex. Works like a Kleenex. Might as well be a Kleenex.

That's not to say that the apps aren't good. They work just the same! Lemon8's discovery algorithm is infinitely better than Instagram's, it is easier to edit your photos in the app, and the user experience is a little smoother and smarter. Bluesky (which is still in invite-only Beta), isn't janky the way Twitter is now, and has quick, useful moderation. In both cases, part of the appeal is having that familiar platform-specific experience out from under the (also familiar) stink of those platform's rotting ownership.

This kind of duplication isn't just a clear a failure of imagination; it is the kind of innovation that capitalism rewards. Don't make something new, make the same thing that someone else made very successful, but slightly better. To have a proven concept, after all, is to plagiarize. It's annoying to see millions of dollars thrown at making more-or-less literal dupes of internet companies that everyone is already using begrudgingly and with diminishing emotional returns. It's maybe more frustrating to realize that the goals of these companies is the same as their predecessors, which is to make the internet smaller.

Though it makes me feel like a grandmother on her deathbed to admit it, I remember the days when the internet was vast, when there seemed to be more places to go than anyone could ever visit and infinite things to read. What you saw was not determined by some highly protected coded algorithm that lives somewhere in the cloud. You could just go out and find it.

In my free periods at art high school, I would gather with friends around the desktop computers in the art history room and read blogs about normal people who were doing ridiculous artistic projects. All of these blogs were owned by passionate people who did them because it was fun. They had a consistent voice and point of view because they were the result of a single person's ardor. I read dozens of blogs every day. Like most people who were online in the 2000s, I did this through my RSS feed: Google Reader.

The death of Google Reader is much bemoaned by bloggers like myself, many of whom believe that its end was why blogs died. That's a beautiful revisionist history that I won't be taking part in here. Google Reader, which was essentially a very well-designed RSS feed with a mild interactive component, died because Google decided they didn't want to play the game in the way that its founders had said they'd play it. Those ethical foundations proved extremely easy to discard once some shiny new companies, most notably Facebook and Twitter, began raking in billions of dollars.

In a September 2004 Playboy interview with Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the writer asks:

"Will Google become a portal similar to Yahoo, AOL or MSN? Many Internet companies were founded as portals. It was assumed that the more services you provided, the longer people would stay on your website and the more revenue you could generate from advertising and pay services."

Larry Page says no. He answers:

"We built a business on the opposite message. We want you to come to Google and quickly find what you want. Then we're happy to send you to the other sites. In fact, that's the point. The portal strategy tries to own all of the information."

This is a stunning quote today! If you use Google as part of being online, which everyone more or less does, you know that isn't what happened. Google built Gmail. They built Gchat. They built Google Reader. They built the short-lived social media gambit Google+. Then they killed Google Reader, as part of an attempt to get users to begin posting on their doomed social media platform. Now you can shop directly on Google. They own YouTube, which is designed to autoplay videos until your brain melts. Like all the big tech giants, they realized that while there may be glory in making something fundamentally good, there isn't a whole lot of money in it.

The reason the death of Google Reader matters, here, is that it marks a pivotal moment in the deliberate and engineered shrinking of the internet. When Google Reader died, article discovery shifted. People were no longer reading RSS feeds, finding new sites, following them, and being updated when those sites posted. Instead, they were scrolling on the endless feed of Twitter, and (at the time) Facebook, and they got whatever they got.

In the late aughts, Twitter and Facebook still valued curiosity, but over the next decade they realized that it wasn't good for business; curiosity brought people to their platforms, but then it whisked them away. So Facebook began paying news companies to make videos that could be hosted on the site, so that users would never leave the page. Twitter changed its algorithm to suppress tweets containing links. The goal of social media became entrapment instead of facilitating and servicing the curiosity that brought people online in the first place. You can feel the difference on those platforms, now. The fun has been drained out it. Everyone is jostling and crowding; everyone would do well, as the now rote mantra goes, to get outside.

This is how every social media giant functions, now: come through the door to our app, and find a new world that you will never leave. There is quite a lot of money in becoming either a monopoly that destroys all competition (as Uber tried to do), or (like the big social media platforms) tries to supplant or replace the rest of the internet by becoming a very, very deep well that is very hard to escape. Every social media app is iterating to prevent users from closing the app. That's why Instagram promotes reels, and reposted tweets and TikToks. It's why TikTok's algorithm will switch your content if you scroll rapidly past too many videos. Plenty has been written about how this kind of endless scroll is eroding users' mental health, creating bad self-image, and generally, making people feel unhappy. Also there is the added problem that these companies are scraping your individual data and selling it off. It's hard to imagine how this kind of heavily surveilled and commodified confinement could even be made to feel "good." Right now, it doesn't.

What's interesting about the launch of both Bluesky and Lemon8 is that they are trying to create these same deep and inescapable wells, but through different methods. Lemon8, which does not seem destined for the long haul (though what do I know?), has simply duplicated the well Instagram dug years ago. This seems like a failure to understand why people join social media, which is that their friends or people they wish were their friends were already there.

Bluesky is trying to re-create Twitter's well by turning back the hands of time, which is at least more interesting. By making its Beta invite-only, Bluesky has created artificial demand. And by giving the codes mainly to shitposters whose brain disease requires them to post all the time—a group that includes me—the Beta itself already feels lively.

Bluesky is doing its best to differentiate themselves from Twitter, while trying to provide an experience that is as close to Twitter as possible. They are tweeting (ha) a lot about how just because Twitter funded them, doesn't mean they owe Twitter anything. They are claiming that Bluesky's goal is to create decentralized public conversation. I'm a little unclear on what that means, to be honest.

Given that there are tech people and tech money behind it, those ominously vague buzzwords probably are a big part of Bluesky's goals. But for the people using it, Bluesky feels like a do-over. Bluesky can't or won't say it, but its very existence suggests a more urgent and pointed pitch. That pitch, more or less, is that Twitter sucks, and we all know it sucks, and that it somehow seems lately to be trying to get worse. It barely works, there are hordes of bots trying to throw elections or whatever, you can get dunked on by 5 million people because you tweeted something stupid while you were half asleep. But mostly, it's just not fun anymore. It feels like the last few songs at a too-long wedding; a few people are still dancing, but everyone else is tired. Everyone is ready to go home.

What's awful about that, for power-users of Twitter like myself, is that we all know that it didn't have to be that way. Choices were made at every turn, by the site's leadership, that allowed hate to reign, and chaos to rule; those decisions crowded fun out entirely. And as much as everyone is saying they hope it dies, Twitter is still the only medium left that is built around text. You don't have to be hot to flourish there, although you can be. You don't have to be photogenic. You can do your little jokes and laugh with your friends. Or at least, you're supposed to be able to. That was, at some point, the idea.

On Saturday night, I watched Bluesky confront two problems that Twitter has handled poorly. The first is the impersonation problem. Someone funny created an account with the name Pope Francis and began retweeting very unholy things from it. A classic bit! Very quickly, that account was slapped with a pink banner reading "this account has been flagged: impersonation." A pink exclamation mark was also added to this user's avatar and the avatar was blurred out. All of their posts, if they appear on your feed, are flagged as impersonation and you have to hit "show" to read them at all.

This is obviously the opposite solution that Twitter employed all those years ago. Instead of verifying famous people, Bluesky (at least for now) has opted to flag impersonators. So far, it's been very effective. It would be hard to get confused about whether or not this person is the pope. It should be.

The second incident was a transphobic comment. A Bluesky user said something hateful and shitty—it was, still, comparatively mild relative to what you see on Twitter now—and people began to dunk on this person. Myself included! I replied "Ew get outta here loser!" And then, within an hour, that user was banned. Just gone.

I have spent more than a decade on Twitter Dot Com, and so I have lost hours (weeks? Months?) of my time blocking men who said hateful or sexist or threatening things to me. Seeing people be treated like shit is such a staple of being in a social media well that it felt exhilarating to see action be taken.

That is the largest common statement on Bluesky, for now. Everyone, from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to regular posters is skeeting about how euphoric it feels to be able to exist on a platform without feeling like you are walking into the middle of an arena to be stoned to death. It feels, for now, like Twitter and Tumblr and even Blogger used to feel. I feel, on Bluesky, a rush of adrenaline akin to the one I got when I downloaded TikTok in late 2018. That's the problem: to be on any platform early is to live in a blissful, delightful fantasy.

Before a platform gets crowded, or scales up to the point that it can no longer truly be managed, it is easy to flag impersonators, and to boot people for being rude and hateful; it is possible, for a while, to maintain a spirit of empathy and exploration and creativity when you live inside a city with very high walls. It is tough to know whether the measures that the team at Bluesky has put in place will be able to handle whatever amount of growth the site receives. "Decentralized" suggests that they do not really want the task of managing that part of it.

Both Bluesky and Lemon8 are designed to be black holes. We are all of us craving something new, places and spaces online that we can go to feel good and have fun and be inspired. These are normal human things to want; people want to be around each other. But it is almost impossible to create or maintain that kind of space if your company's goal is profit. The way social media works, or the way it has come to understand itself in reflection of its investors' vision, is to get bigger and bigger. The well deepens and widens, the sites scale infinitely until everyone is inside. At that point, it doesn't feel like a magic garden anymore. It feels like a death pit.

Because the goal of Silicon Valley products is always to scale—to grow infinitely until you have conquered everything and then, from the confines of your monopoly, to create infinite and endless profit—it's hard to imagine that a site that feels like Bluesky does like right now could continue to exist in that way in the future. The investors and founders don't seem to have any new ideas about what is by now a decently old problem. They're just starting the process over.

It is worth remembering that the internet wasn't supposed to be like this. It wasn't supposed to be six boring men with too much money creating spaces that no one likes but everyone is forced to use because those men have driven every other form of online existence into the ground. The internet was supposed to have pockets, to have enchanting forests you could stumble into and dark ravines you knew better than to enter. The internet was supposed to be a place of opportunity, not just for profit but for surprise and connection and delight. Instead, like most everything American enterprise has promised held some new dream, it has turned out to be the same old thing—a dream for a few, and something much more confining for everyone else.

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