Could Bluesky be the replacement for Academic Twitter?

Could Bluesky be the replacement for Academic Twitter?

Elon Musk’s unanticipated acquisition of Twitter (X), and the rapid alterations he has instituted have led many academics to look for alternative social media platforms. Mark Carrigan, proposes Bluesky, a social media platform derived from Twitter, as a plausible alternative, but questions whether we are now in a period of constant social media migration.


Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (now X) has led to a gradual withdrawal of academics from the platform. It increasingly fails to serve the communication and community development purpose it once did for academics. Had there been an obvious replacement for Twitter, this departure would have been hastened. Further, there are obvious limitations to existing platforms (LinkedIn, Mastodon, Threads), which make them unlikely direct replacements. This has left an increasingly fragmented social media landscape and split academic audiences, ultimately eroding the vibrancy characteristic of Twitter when it was the default platform for academics. I suggest that Bluesky is the emerging platform best placed to function as a replacement for Twitter.

Why Bluesky?

Originally an internal project at Twitter to develop a decentralized protocol for social networking, Bluesky is driven by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Bluesky is a public benefit corporation: a legal form that seeks to make a positive impact on society alongside commercial success. The leadership of Bluesky are active on the platform and a sense of mission pervades the organisation. This revolves around the decentralisation of social media in a manner similar to, but distinct from, Mastodon. How this mission may develop in the future is therefore important.

The interface is effectively a clone of Twitter, but there are several subtle differences. For example, the default setting is not to show other people’s replies in your timeline, unless they receive a certain number of responses. These subtle shifts in the conversational architecture can initially be opaque to a longtime Twitter user. But they are customisable, reflecting a commitment to offering users control over their timeline. Rather than having a ‘master algorithm’ imposed by the platform operator to further their own commercial interests, Bluesky is working towards a ‘marketplace of algorithms’ in which users can select a method for sorting their timeline. These custom feeds are likely to become central to the platform over time. At present there are a range of custom feeds that academics have created for different fields and disciplines. I follow feeds for Sociology and Science, Technology & Studies. I may establish one for Digital Education if someone doesn’t do this soon! For now this is a relatively complex process, but we can expect automated solutions as the platform grows.

These custom feeds mean you can switch between multiple timelines in ways that can feel powerful and useful. At present the small scale of the network means these feeds are better for discovery than filtering. They are a way to find accounts to follow and the relevant content they are posting. If Bluesky grows, like Twitter did, to the point where regular uses routinely follow thousands of people, custom feeds will be an essential way of switching between communities. I find the terminology off-putting, but I can see how the ‘marketplace of algorithms’ could prove to be enormously beneficial to a diverse research community with different social media needs and preferences.

Bluesky is working towards a ‘marketplace of algorithms’ in which users can select a method for sorting their timeline.

I feel a sense of ambivalence about the likely growth of Bluesky over the coming months and years. Since I first joined in 2010, I have run over thirty Twitter accounts with follower counts ranging from a few thousand to over sixty thousand. There is a liberating feeling to engaging in a network of a couple of hundred people, each of whom I have purposefully followed and share interests with. However, it is difficult to disentangle the small scale of the network from the design of the platform in making sense of how it feels to be a Bluesky user at this stage. It seems clear that both are playing a part, creating a welcoming and conversational space in which users are genuinely inclined to engage with each other, rather than the hyperactive clout chasing that came to define much of academic Twitter.

Over the 2010s I went from being hugely enthusiastic about social media to being exhausted by it. Richard Seymour’s invocation of Paul Klee’s painting The Twittering Machine captured this perfectly for me. What had originally felt like a smorgasbord of intellectual delights came to feel like a wearying chore on which my career depended, especially when precariously employed. Bluesky has reminded me why I was once enthusiastic about Twitter. It is a breath of fresh air to use Bluesky after years of Twitter and it has reconnected me with people I had lost touch with and topics I had fallen out of the habit of thinking about.

it is difficult to disentangle the small scale of the network from the design of the platform in making sense of how it feels to be a Bluesky user at this stage.

The invite code system, whereby users are given one invite code per week, means the network is growing in a slow and purposeful way based on existing connections that users value. There is a further element of self-selection in the users who are inclined to use Bluesky despite the relatively early stage of its development. This manifests in a network culture that repeatedly jokes about ‘the other place’ and takes a reflective stance towards emerging norms on the platform. For example, there is a drive towards ensuring alt text is provided by all users for images, with many committing to not resharing posts without it. This is one example of how what Jean Burgess and Nancy Baym describe as ‘public pedagogy ’ is visible on the platform. Users narrate how they approach the platform and explain its functionality to ease the transition of new users into the network, as well as taking responsibility for how the platform’s culture develops over time.

there is a drive towards ensuring alt text is provided by all users for images, with many committing to not resharing posts without it.

However, I wonder if this user culture might prove a burden. Bluesky have suggested the allocation of unit codes might increase significantly. This would make invites less selective, thereby weakening the strength of existing connections and the public pedagogy that helps socialise new users. While I find the user culture of Bluesky refreshing, incoming users could find it overly directive and even grating. This risks leading to a repeat of the culture clash seen on Mastodon, where its “purposeful complexity, designed to be antiviral” limited uptake. What happens when users are not self-selecting and joining through the existing networks of early adopters? How much of the positive user experience that academics currently find will survive the transition?

The limits of Bluesky

Bluesky’s shallow network means the instrumental possibilities for academics are limited. It is not a good place to shout about your work in pursuit of academic celebrity, because most academics have few followers and professional narcissism is a poor way to build them up. This is likely to be a check on its growth at present, given the competitive individualism encouraged by the real but unpredictable rewards universities offer for social media popularity. But this competitive individualism will eventually arrive on Bluesky, possibly at the point where Twitter simply becomes untenable, even for those academics who have built up massive social capital there that they have been loath to part with.

it is time for the sector to have a much deeper conversation about how we make them work for us, rather than leaving it to individual academics, who have too often found themselves working for the platform instead

Bluesky also currently has no business model. There are suggestions it might eventually move towards a subscription model. In an interview with The Verge in April, CEO Jay Graber suggested that “In an open marketplace, there will very likely be value-added services that people find worth paying for”, though stressing the firm’s immediate focus was on the challenges of moderation and growth. In fact, Musk’s announcement that he planned to charge all Twitter users led to a spike in Bluesky’s membership, with 53,858 new members (5% of the platform’s entire user-base) having joined by the end of the following day. This vividly captures how Bluesky’s positioning of itself as the replacement for Twitter is resonating with the legacy platform’s user-base, long attached to the service, but increasingly unwilling to tolerate its new direction.

If the academic community is looking for a replacement for Twitter, I am increasingly convinced Bluesky is what we have been waiting for. However, I hope this does not prove a mistake in which we once more outsource the digital social infrastructure of the research community to a private firm, rather than finding a way to build it within the sector. It is hard to shake the feeling we might be entering into a dynamic of digital migration, in response to waves of what the internet scholar Cory Doctorow calls enshittification, as one platform after another becomes unusable. If social platforms have become indispensable to our work, then perhaps it is time for the sector to have a much deeper conversation about how we make them work for us, rather than leaving it to individual academics, who have too often found themselves working for the platform instead.

 


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