Advertisement

As Bluesky opens to the public, CEO Jay Graber faces her biggest challenge yet

Bluesky CEO Jay Graber says that her job is like being a substitute teacher. It’s not what you’d expect from the head of an experimental, up-and-coming social platform, but it makes sense: there’s a lot of pressure, and a mischievous audience is eager to poke and prod at any crack in your armor until you break.

As the Twitter-like app opens to the public, Graber is reminiscing about her first public gaffe as a CEO.

“All of the users collectively deciding that posts were called ‘skeets,’ and me trying to say, ‘no guys, they’re posts,’ and then being endlessly ridiculed was pretty funny,” Graber told TechCrunch.

The blend of “sky” and “tweet” has some unsavory connotations, which -- to keep the substitute teacher metaphor alive -- is befitting of a middle schooler’s sense of humor. But it was too late: even CNN anchor Jake Tapper referred to a Bluesky post as a “skeet” live on air.

“Some people said there always needs to be a tension between the users and the platform. Funnily enough, it does feel like there’s this dynamic of the substitute teacher in the room,” Graber said. “It’s like, ‘No, we’re gonna riot!’ and that sort of pushback is, I think, part of the natural elements of running a social app.”

But it’s not all shitposts and portmanteaus when you’re building a new social media infrastructure from the ground up. "Skeetgate" was a pretty low-stakes controversy to kick things off, but as the platform evolves, Bluesky faces more urgent concerns, and not just the usual questions of content moderation or how to responsibly monetize. As a decentralized platform, Graber and her team are faced with an ongoing challenge: How do you create powerful open source social tools without them getting co-opted by bad actors?

Entering the decentralized web

Bluesky isn’t just a new Twitter competitor. The company also created the AT Protocol for social networking, which is completely open source. That way, the public has a 24/7 view into what Bluesky’s team is building, and how they’re doing it.

“People are able to just directly go in and modify the code -- like, when we say this is open source social, all the code is open source,” Graber said. This means users have the agency to build new features for themselves. “People decided they were tired of not having videos and GIFs, right? So a community member went in and added that as a public contribution. We’re not natively handling media, but we’re now playing YouTube embeds and GIF embeds.”

Better yet, third-party developers can build their own custom algorithmic feeds, which they can make available to the rest of the user base -- they’re even searchable inside of the Bluesky app.

Some algorithmic feeds are more technically driven, like one that only shows posts from people who follow you (the reverse of a standard following feed). Another shows only image posts from people you follow. Other feeds help users find specific, niche communities, which range from a feed of furries, to one that shows Ukrainian users’ perspectives of the war with Russia. These feeds can use machine learning to strengthen the recommendation algorithm beyond just surfacing posts with a certain keyword or posts from a specific list of users.

Some feeds are just silly, like Graber’s personal favorite: a feed about moss.

“No one explicitly joined a moss community,” Graber said. “It’s just sort of pulling up, surfacing, dredging streams of interaction out of the global conversation. And then seeing a community form organically around that is something really cool.”

Later on, developers will also be able to make their own content moderation models, which users can subscribe to as though they’re following an account. And soon, Bluesky will open up federation, which allows users to create their own social media servers that communicate with each other via the AT Protocol.

If that seems similar to Mastodon, that’s because it is. Mastodon has led the decentralized social space since its founding in 2016, but it’s built on an older social networking protocol, ActivityPub. While Mastodon and Bluesky have similar values, Graber’s team ultimately decided to build their own protocol instead.

This could prove tricky in the future, since Instagram’s Threads has promised interoperability with ActivityPub, and platforms like WordPress and Tumblr are slated to do the same. Though Bluesky’s team isn’t actively working on a bridge between the AT Protocol and ActivityPub, the community is. Graber points to Bridgy, as one example.

“It bridges these protocols, because they’re open APIs, and you can cross-post and do all sorts of things,” Graber said. “The thing about software is, it’s just code, and developers can always modify it.”

The language around platforms like Bluesky and Mastodon is similar to the buzzwords that the crypto community espouses: decentralization, ownership and community. However, these social protocols are not built on the blockchain. Before Bluesky, Graber was a blockchain developer, but she’s learned from the failures of crypto companies, which alienated users with cult-like evangelism of their tech stacks, or complex onboarding processes that involve making a digital wallet or writing down a string of 20 words. As a result, she prioritizes making Bluesky a good user experience for anyone -- even those who don’t know or care what a decentralized protocol is. And if they want to learn more, they can.

“We really wanted to give people something where they didn’t have to learn a whole new thing to post,” Graber said. “That was a design choice we made that involves some technical trade-offs, but it got us away from this philosophy of, ‘No, users must understand the technology and care about the ideals in order to use it,’ because then that diminishes your audience of who’s willing to use it.”

The trade-offs of open source

Graber’s plans for Bluesky are as ambitious as its initial aspirations, when it began as a project within Twitter. Initially hatched by Jack Dorsey, who was CEO of Twitter at the time, Bluesky was first imagined as a protocol that would limit the responsibility of centralized platforms, like Twitter itself.

“This isn’t going to happen overnight. It will take many years to develop a sound, scalable, and usable decentralized standard for social media,” Dorsey wrote when he announced the Bluesky project in 2019. “Our commitment is to fund this work to that point and beyond.”

Of course, a lot has changed at Twitter since 2019 -- there have been four different CEOs, for one thing. But Bluesky had the foresight to spin itself into a separate entity from Twitter, so when Elon Musk bought Twitter and renamed it X, Graber and her team were already operating independently of the company. Dorsey hired Graber to run the company in 2021, poaching her from Happening, an alternative to Facebook events that she founded.

While Dorsey still sits on the company's board, Bluesky is now raising venture capital like a regular startup, rather than a project of another company. This summer, Bluesky raised an $8 million seed fund led by Neo with a long list of angel investors, including WordPress.com owner Automattic, Kubernetes co-creator Joe Beda and Amir Shevat, the former head of Twitter's developer platform.

“Twitter had made this commitment to Bluesky over the next five years, but it looked like things could change if Jack left or something changed at Twitter,” she said. “Five years is a long time in social, and so we got set up as an independent company.”

Along the same lines, Graber wants to build an infrastructure that allows users, too, to reclaim agency over their social media experiences. This mission-driven work harkens back to one of her earliest jobs, when she was a digital rights organizer at Free Press, working on issues like net neutrality, antitrust and privacy.

“I really feel like it is getting me back to being able to give users something that changes the power dynamics online, because people are able to build something that’s built for the people, by the people,” Graber said. “You give people an open protocol, and then developers -- or anyone else who wants to work on it -- they can just innovate.”

This openness gives users agency to control and curate their social media experience. On a centralized platform like TikTok, users have no choice but to embrace the whims of the unpredictable For You feed. Even if someone wanted to build a custom algorithm for TikTok, they couldn’t, because they wouldn’t have access to the necessary data.

The benefits of an open source, decentralized platform are enticing, but when it comes to content moderation, less control may not be a good thing.

Mastodon learned this the hard way in 2019, when the far-right, Nazi-friendly social network Gab migrated to its servers after being removed from GoDaddy. Mastodon’s founder condemned Gab, but said at the time that decentralization prevented him from actually taking action. Individual Mastodon servers had to mitigate the situation themselves. Some blocked Gab’s server en masse, making it impossible for Gab members to interact with others on the website. But still, Mastodon has to reckon with its open source code being used to power what it calls a “thinly (if at all) veiled white supremacist platform.” Gab ended up being one of the platforms that right-wing radicals used to plan the attacks on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and it remains online via Mastodon’s tech. Even Donald Trump’s social media platform, Truth Social, is built atop Mastodon’s technology.

“The analogies here are really just, this is how the web works,” Graber said. “So what do you do when people are building things on the web that could be dangerous? There’s different levels of intervention. First of all, don’t promote it, don’t send it out to more eyeballs. And then you can disconnect from it, don’t link out to it. So make it less discoverable.”

Bluesky has already sowed distrust with some of its users by being too hands-off with content moderation decisions. Last June, when Bluesky only had about 100,000 users, someone posted that they wanted a prominent Black user to be shoved off “somewhere real high.” While some users reported that comment as a threat of violence, Graber did not remove the post.

“We do not condone death threats and will continue to remove accounts when we believe their posts represent targeted harassment or a credible threat of violence. But not all heated language crosses the line into a death threat,” Graber said in a Bluesky thread at the time. “Wisely or not, many people use violent imagery when they’re arguing or venting. We debated whether a “death threat” needs to be specific and direct in order to cause harm, and what it would mean for people’s ability to engage in heated discussions on Bluesky if we prohibited this kind of speech.”

This incident exposed users to the reality of federated platforms. The good news is that, if they really hate Graber’s moderation choices, they can build their own server with their own rules. But the bad news is that the people making death threats can do so, too.

“This is one of the trade-offs of open source, which is that there’s a lot of benefits — stuff is open, anyone can collaborate, anyone can contribute, anyone can use the code,” Graber said on a panel last month. “That also means people whose values drastically diverge from yours can use the code, grab it, and run with it.”

This approach to content moderation will continue to be tested as Bluesky opens to the public. Only an hour after announcing that it’s no longer invite-only, Bluesky was getting about two new signups per second.

“When users treat me like I’m Jack Dorsey or Elon, maybe I look equivalent on one level, but I’m very much not from that background, and that’s not what I’m doing,” Graber said. “This isn’t 10 years ago, and we’re not building centralized social. We’re building something that has a lot more chaos and a lot more flexibility.”