Will Elon Musk keep funding Twitter’s most interesting side project?

Elon Musk finally owns Twitter now. While Twitter’s users are still parsing what that means for them, we’ve got a general idea: laxer content moderation, fewer people keeping the lights on, and maybe the eventual addition of “everything app” features like payments and reservations for services. But the standard Twitter app isn’t the only platform whose future Musk now controls. Over the past three years, Twitter Inc. has also been funding a decentralized social networking project called Bluesky — and it finally seems close to bearing fruit. But under Twitter’s new leadership, with its original champions gone, its future prospects seem shaky.

Bluesky was launched under Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s leadership back in 2019, and its initial manager was Parag Agrawal, then Twitter’s CTO and later Dorsey’s replacement. The goal was to build a decentralized social network protocol that could eventually hook into Twitter — making it interoperable with other networks unrelated to the company. To maintain independence from Twitter as a business, Bluesky was set up as an independent entity producing nonproprietary open-source work — even as it was funded by Twitter. Bluesky was formally organized as a public benefit LLC led by software engineer Jay Graber in late 2021, and as of April, it had received $13 million from Twitter.

Soon after Musk’s acquisition offer, Bluesky seemed to express confidence its mission wouldn’t change, tweeting that “Twitter’s funding of Bluesky is not subject to any conditions except one: that Bluesky is to research and develop technologies that enable open and decentralized public conversation.” Late on Thursday, as the acquisition was closing, we got another cautiously optimistic message. “Very curious to see where Elon is going to take Twitter. Very glad we’re independent — will keep working on building protocols that make social more resilient to rapid change,” Graber tweeted. “Nobody can buy ’email’ as a platform, and that’s a good thing.”

And while Twitter has appeared mirrored in turmoil during the past few months, Bluesky has been making more visible progress than usual. In April, it released the first piece of what it’s since dubbed the AT Protocol, and last week, it opened a waitlist for an app built on the protocol. Whatever Bluesky is building, it seems like we’ll be able to use it relatively soon.

But despite the assurances of independence, the Musk acquisition really doesn’t seem like good news for Bluesky. I reached out to Graber for more details about the project’s future, but there’s an obvious caveat to that tweet: even if nobody can buy email as a platform, they can sure stop paying people to work on building it. Everyone is expecting significant belt-tightening under Musk’s leadership, and depending on how much it crunches the budget, Bluesky could be one of the easiest line items to cut.

Dorsey wished he’d never turned Twitter into a company. So far, Musk seems happy to just take the reins

With Agrawal and Dorsey out, there may be no one left to fight for the project. Bluesky has always seemed like a quirky pet cause of Jack Dorsey, and that impression has only gotten stronger over time. Dorsey imagined decentralization as a way to sidestep increasing bitter content moderation debates among law- and policy-makers. Decentralized social networking protocols like ActivityPub (which powers Mastodon) already exist, and to the extent Bluesky has a unique vision, it reflects ideas like Dorsey’s love of “algorithmic choice” or competing social media moderation algorithms. He told Musk in a text message that Twitter “never should have been a company,” expressing regret that he hadn’t created a communications protocol instead — a protocol that sounded a lot like Bluesky.

So far, I haven’t seen any of that interest from Musk. Musk thinks Twitter is important for (loosely defined) free speech, but as a self-described “nano-manager,” he seems happy keeping control of that speech to himself and his newly announced content moderation council. Decentralized networks can be harder for governments to censor because there’s no single contact point to pressure, but Musk has said he’ll “match the laws” of a country — which implies he’ll want the ability to filter posts as necessary.

It would be a shame to lose one of the most interesting things Twitter has done in recent years. Even if you don’t fully subscribe to Dorsey’s vision — or think it’s partially retreading ground covered by other open-source projects — it’s a positive thing for Musk and Twitter to fund. And if it does play a meaningful role in decentralizing social media, that will open up more options for anyone who’s skeptical of Twitter under Musk.

A lot of interest in Bluesky is driven by its Twitter connection

Musk is nominally intrigued by a kind of decentralization. He announced early plans to make the Twitter “algorithm” “open source,” although he’s never clearly explained what that means. In the trove of text messages mentioned above, he told his brother Kimbal that “I think a new social media company is needed that is based on a blockchain and includes payments,” although he concluded that a blockchain-based Twitter “wasn’t possible .” But none of that inevitably overlaps with Bluesky’s mission — as Graber note on Twitter earlier this month, it’s specifically not using a blockchain.

Musk could probably adopt some broad ideas from Bluesky. He’s said that Twitter users should set their own levels of offensive content filtering, for instance, and Bluesky has a system for dividing “speech” (the ability to post something) and “reach” (the ability to have other people see it). But Bluesky’s actual code wouldn’t necessarily be helpful — it’s specifically solving the problem of letting lots of different services connect to each other, which doesn’t apply if Twitter’s just setting up internal filters.

$13 million isn’t a lot of money by Musk’s standards, and he could decide Bluesky has enough potential to keep funding. But where a Dorsey-run Twitter placed few strings on the money, we don’t know what a Musk-run Twitter would demand. If funding doesn’t come through, Bluesky may have to strike out on its own, seeking other sources of funding. And Bluesky’s connection to Twitter has attracted interest that lots of decentralized protocols don’t get. Without it, an uphill path to changing social media will get even steeper.