Elon Musk has returned to the US after his chat with Rishi Sunak, but like a fox on a patio he could not resist leaving us a pungent memento. Yesterday (5 November) he intervened to ensure two of our country’s best-known far-right agitators, the former reality TV contestant Katie Hopkins and the former mortgage fraudster Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”) are reinstated on his social media platform, X. Yaxley-Lennon was banned from Twitter in 2018, Hopkins in 2020; both thanked Musk personally for allowing them to spread their views to a wider audience.
For Twitter/X users who air their displeasure at sharing the digital town square with people whose views they find repellent, there’s also the prospect that their displeasure (and everything else they post) will be used as training data for Musk’s new chatbot, Grok. They may even, in the near future, have to pay for that privilege.
Musk’s gamble is that he can annoy people as much as he likes. A user who has spent years building their following on Twitter may not like the way it is going, but they won’t really leave because they’ve invested so much time and effort in it. However, that will only remain the case until the perceived cost of leaving is outweighed by the perceived cost of being late to a more popular alternative. One of these, Bluesky, seems to be quietly approaching a tipping point.
Next week (at the current rate of increase) Bluesky will reach two million registered users. This is tiny in comparison to Twitter/X, which claims 225 million “monetisable daily active users”, and much smaller than other alternatives such as Threads (137 million accounts) and Mastodon (more than ten million accounts), which have had huge surges in membership followed by slumps in activity. However, Bluesky’s slow but steady growth looks like a convincing pattern of network formation.
Bluesky – which looks like Twitter and works in almost exactly the same way – is currently invite-only; users are issued with invite codes that they can distribute to others. The main reason for this is probably to prevent the service from keeling over as new users join, but it also adds a couple of factors that aid network growth: in network terms, each new user joins with at least one “dyadic relationship” (a connection to another person) and one reward (they’ve been given a code by someone else) from associating with it.
The handing out of codes to others creates a feedback loop of reciprocity, and for some Bluesky users distributing codes to grow the network seems to be more important than growing their own following. This is quite rational – the value of the network grows with the number of people in it, especially if they are being primed to participate by a small act of kindness. One user told me he had distributed more than 500 invite codes, and he’s aware of others who have handed out many more.
Of the users I’ve spoken to, a common theme is that they pick up a high number of followers relative to the overall size of the platform, and that the quality of interactions is also surprisingly good for a small network. One person with around 150,000 followers on Twitter/X told me: “I had just reached a point where I wasn’t getting any of the thought-provoking conversations and spontaneous interactions I used to value on Twitter, and suddenly I was getting that on Bluesky.” Another user who has around 35,000 Twitter/X followers and has been active on Mastodon and Threads says Bluesky is “now a bit better than Mastodon was at its best”.
The other big factor is that Musk’s management of the X platform is reducing the cost of leaving; if it’s too swamped with controversy and opinion to be a news source, and if it doesn’t work for making valuable new connections, even a large following starts to have little use. The fact that large news organisations such as NPR in the US and ABC in Australia have left X – NPR said the move had a negligible effect on its web traffic – suggests the cost-benefit values are changing even for organisations that are in the attention business.
When Musk was preparing to buy Twitter in March 2022 the company’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey, texted him that “a new platform” was needed for the public conversation, but that “it can’t be a company”. Like the internet itself, Twitter had been corrupted by political and commercial interests; arranging it in a corporate structure “was the original sin”, Dorsey wrote.
Bluesky – which was set up in 2019, when Dorsey was still on the Twitter board – was Dorsey’s answer: a “protocol” rather than a company, which does not rely on advertising and from which users are able to leave, taking their followings with them. It promises to treat social media as a “shared public commons”, and this, too, may be attractive to users who feel grubby at providing free content to further enrich a petty and vindictive billionaire.
What remains to be seen is whether any major social media platform can be run with equanimity, and whether Bluesky can remain committed to the public good when it’s confronted by the true horror of who we, the public, really are.
[See also: Why are men so scared of robots?]