Idea: Make Bluesky a Cooperative

Idea: Make Bluesky a Cooperative

Mark Zuckerberg's attempted Twitter clone Threads is in sad shape. Immediately after its explosive launch, engagement tanked, and then tanked some more. Now with the userbase fading away, even brands—what Threads was seemingly designed to cater to above all else—are ditching the platform. I wouldn't say necessarily that Threads is going to die for sure—it could surely survive indefinitely as a vestigial appendage to Instagram—but it does not seem at all likely to take Twitter's former place as a de facto global public square.

I find this quite surprising. Threads had every possible advantage: enormous capital backing and hence technical capacity to launch at a global scale immediately, a built-in integration to an already-popular social media site, a huge splash of initial media coverage, and spectacular early growth.

Still, I can hazard a few guesses as to why it flopped. First, the compulsive Big Tech need to control attention through a proprietary algorithm so as to sell attention to advertisers meant Threads buried its option for a traditional reverse-chronological feed, and therefore its early experience was tons and tons of viral garbage. Second, the integration with Instagram meant loads of influencers porting their 6- and 7-figure followings over to a platform based around writing rather than pictures, and it turns out that such people often can't write for shit. Third, privacy problems. Fourth, Mark Zuckerberg is obviously some kind of demon.

Speaking personally, I just found Threads completely boring. The few times I logged on, I would see a bunch of low-effort viral bait, brand posts, or screenshots of tweets from 2016, and log back out again. There was a similar problem with Mastodon—no offense to people who swear by that place, but I saw one too many arguments about the ethics of putting content warnings on every single post and dipped.

What drew me to Twitter was that you could get an immediate read on the news of the day (and with lists you could follow multiple specific topics), as well as funny riffs and jokes. It was not very good for conversation—it was in fact extremely bad for any kind of even slightly complicated discussion—but it was amusing, and highly useful for broadcasting and information purposes.

That brings me to Bluesky, which is at bottom a Twitter clone without more than half its functionality (no video, GIFs, circles, spaces, or DMs so far) yet I find more appealing by far than any of the would-be replacements. The reason is cultural: when I log on I can usually find a bit of the latest news, some funny posts, and a reasonably lively community. Culture may be part of the reason Threads ate shit—by growing so fast, it could not develop any kind of established society before the clout sharks jumped in trying to monetize the place, like some noxious weeds trying to grow in a sterile gravel pit.

Since Elon Musk murdered Twitter the world is still crying out for something to replace it—a posting service for politicians, government agencies, academics, journalists, athletes, celebrities, and regular citizens. It's no exaggeration to say it was a substantial part of how the world was governed. Twitter backed into this functionality basically by accident, but as time passed management came to realize its importance, and took various steps to do it better. Most of it was fairly halfhearted—stricter ban policies around bigotry, harassment, and pandemic disinformation; some caution with verification; working with academics to study how bad actors try to manipulate the platform, and so on—but the Twitter of 2021 was quite a bit better than that of 2015. Now, of course, one of the worst bad actors is running the place into the ground.

I believe Bluesky could serve this purpose. Indeed, as Elon Musk keeps tearing huge chunks out of Vichy Twitter Bluesky has halfway stumbled into becoming a replacement by default. But I think it could do better than Twitter by setting up a clear, formalized intention to serve this purpose rather than some half-baked notion of "free speech," which means above all explicit and fairly strict moderation principles from the start, rather than trying to root out the Nazis after they are already established. Free speech and rational discourse, like any public goods, require regulation to actually be instantiated. This reality has long been familiar to any forum moderator.

The big question mark here, of course, is money. Apparently the company has already taken a few million dollars in venture capital investment. By now most people are familiar with the problems with this business model. For one thing, the typical Big Tech method of surveillance advertising is directly at odds with the objective of rational, responsible communication. The way Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube make money is by turning themselves into scrolling addiction factories to varying degrees, and the most addictive content is highly inflammatory: extremist politics, hysterical misinformation, conspiracy theories, and so on. As Josh Marshall writes, "Facebook is like a scofflaw nuclear power company that makes insane profits because it runs its reactor in the open and dumps the waste in the bog behind the local high school."

For another, VCs invest hoping for explosive growth and a massive payout, and if they don't get it they tend to strangle the business trying to wring out profits by force. I would guess big payouts are highly unlikely to happen with Bluesky. Even Twitter only turned an annual profit twice in its best years before Elon gutted it, and that was before the current era of high interest rates and investment flowing to green energy rather than (frequently rigged) social media ad marketplaces.

I think a cooperative model—a collectively owned platform, explicitly for small-d democratic communication—is a lot more promising. The basic idea would be to copy S Group, which is the subject of my latest print article for the Prospect. To make a long story short, S Group is a Finnish consumer cooperative run in a highly professional, disciplined, and businesslike fashion. This has allowed it to grow to enormous size, making up nearly half the Finnish grocery market, far outstripping its capitalist competitors—as compared to the typical tiny, expensive, labor-of-love co-ops in America.

As far as I can tell the Bluesky ownership structure is not public (and you'd need a lawyer to actually figure any of this out), but basically you'd amend the corporate charter to be a nonprofit co-op, and see if you could sell enough memberships to raise operating capital for the transition—say, 100,000 initial openings at $100 apiece. You'd probably want some requirements, like maybe having had an account on there for at least 3 months, posted 10 times, and signed an agreement to support basic cooperative principles—plus a procedure for kicking people out who violate them.

If you could eventually get a million or two Bluesky poster-owners—not all that ambitious given that S Group has 2.5 million members in a country less than 2 percent the size of the US, and Bluesky membership would be available in many countries—you'd have more than enough money to pay off the VCs, hire some more staff, build out basic video functionality, and seek out ongoing sources of stable revenue. Who knows, with reasonable goals and staffing it might be able to turn a small profit eventually, which of course would be returned to the poster-owners.

A quadrennial election among poster-owners would elect a governing council, which would appoint a management team: CEO, CFO, trust and safety lead, and so on. (Of course these would be the extant team to start with, but people will naturally move on and be replaced over time.) The governing council would set the objectives—revenue goals, acceptable fundraising strategies, paying off the former investors, new features, etc—and management would execute them as written. And again, these would be experienced and well-paid professionals.

Obviously this would have its downsides and risks. Cranks of every political stripe are certain to try to do entryism and take the service over, or just ruin it for fun. There might not be enough interest. It would be totally at odds with individualist Silicon Valley culture.

But I don't think it would be at all impossible. Just for myself, as the kind of minor internet personality that would be the core constituency for such an enterprise, I would pay quite a lot of money—a thousand dollars at least—on an ownership stake in Bluesky, if I had a reasonable expectation it would preserve the service as a going concern, and the benefits of that spending did not flow to a handful of shareholders.

I spent tens of thousands of hours over more than a decade on Twitter building up a following. It was beneficial to my career, but it was also beneficial to the platform itself. I was the kind of account that made it most of its money. Watching Elon Musk tear it to shreds is depressing, but also makes me feel like a chump. The truth is that this was always possible and perhaps even likely, given the kind of people who have hundreds of billions of dollars these days. Vengeful, stupid, asshole billionaires buying things and then ruining them for no reason is practically a daily occurrence in this country. I've put a fair bit of time into Bluesky, but so long as it is privately owned, I'm going to remain wary, and prioritize other methods of engagement under my own control, like this newsletter.

And that in turn is another reason why I think a cooperative Bluesky is more likely to succeed than a typical shareholder-owned firm over the long term, if it could get enough members. No need for the largest possibly quantity of ad revenue would mean no need for a manipulative algorithm that degrades the posting experience, discourse space, and eventually the attractiveness and hence viability of the service itself—just look at how Facebook appears to be in long-term decline. No need to keep seeking more and more VC investment (at least after this first batch) means the business will not have to puke itself inside out into the investor gullet later.

And perhaps most importantly, a cooperative cannot be strangled by the biggest shithead on planet Earth throwing his money around. Should Bluesky actually look likely that it will succeed Twitter, I think it is quite likely that Elon Musk (or someone like him) will try to buy it and destroy it out of spite. I'm kind of surprised he hasn't tried already—it wouldn't cost much compared to what he's blown on ruining Twitter.

Reporting my article, some of my most interesting interviews were with straight-laced business types like Kari Neilimo, who was central to S Group's reform as CEO of SOK (the coordinating body of S Group) in the 1990s. He told me he was extremely proud of what he'd achieved while turning the business around, despite not getting any kind of ownership stake out of the experience.

Part of that is down to Finnish culture, the long history of S Group, the fact that he was quite well paid, and other factors. But reading between the lines, I think another part was the fact that he helped build something extremely successful and long-lasting. Thanks in part to his efforts, S Group almost certainly will still be around in another 100 years, serving the needs of Finns in its modest way. That has to be immensely satisfying to someone whose ambition is even a little pro-social.

A word on federation. From what I can tell, the basic motivation for Bluesky is about its AT federation protocol, and this seems to be—characteristically for tech culture—an attempt to achieve a political outcome through engineering. The idea is that people will be able to port their followings between services (which will be interoperable in theory), build their own feeds, and so on.

I don't have the technical experience to evaluate this protocol relative to other ones, or if it will actually achieve its goals. It sounds pretty good, but personally I have my doubts—I think the average user wants a simple and straightforward experience, and will not care at all about anything even slightly technically complicated—but who knows. Certainly there would be no harm in seeing how it goes. But even if it does work as hoped, I still think going co-op makes sense.

Consider Wikipedia, which has to be one of the most successful utopian projects in human history. It has its problems—a heavily male editor base, various documented biases, poor coverage in some languages—but it's the only top five global website whose quality has not degraded dramatically over the last 5 years. The reason for that, I submit, is that Wikipedia has a quasi-democratic government. It is legally structured as a nonprofit, it has a consistent and reliable funding stream in the form of donations, and while anyone can edit most articles, there is a structured and regulated process for doing so. This kind of legal-constitutional bureaucracy is boring—and creates interminable editor arguments on some talk pages—but it works. This kind of thing is how humans have worked together to achieve shared goals for thousands of years.

Money can't buy everything, it turns out.

Compare to Google, which is structured at bottom as a money-making dictatorship, and as a result, profit has gradually eaten every one of its initial utopian goals, including the functionality of its core search engine, as its own founders predicted would happen when they started the company.

In any case, this isn't up to me. But if the Bluesky brass want to put some innovative organizational heft behind their utopian project, I for one am willing to put money on the line.

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