There are upsides, of course. Even my cold academic heart can’t deny the joyous relief of my trans sisters and siblings who made it onto the Bluesky open beta and express enormous relief at how much better the environment is there. How could it not be, when a recent post by an MMA fighter openly musing about publicly executing any cis person who helps trans people was greeted by dozens of Muskian blue-checks enthusiastically agreeing—saying the idea was “based”? Anything is better than the indignity of laying eyes on such a bloodthirsty gaggle for even a few seconds.
But I remember lots of people saying the same thing about Post, Hive, and Mastodon not a few months ago, myself included. Witnessing inter-server warfare destroy a whole, brand-new Mastodon instance primarily populated by trans women was a cruel reminder of how dangerous it is to think that honeymoons last forever—or that the safety of marginalized people is a simple matter of running. The fragmentation will, perhaps, isolate that toxicity to each of its respective layers of hell in the form of separate servers, preventing a measure of virality, but it will still exist—as Mastodon has abundantly proven with its rampant hostility to its Black users.
The goals of Bluesky’s owners are noble indeed, and even comport with some of my own wishes for social media—for it to be broken up, individualized, and made more resilient against interference from states or malicious plutocrats like Elon Musk. But they may not be compatible with the precise dream of so many of these shitposters; especially the marginalized ones. If Bluesky lives up to its promises, the various and sundry right-wing “culture warriors” and other crypto-fascists might find themselves behind a permanent block that cannot be undone by corporate chicanery. But those same mechanisms will also, of necessity, put up barriers between diverse communities, hiding many of them from those same radically minded shitposters, and in the process making it impossible to recreate Twitter’s serendipity.
To tell the truth, I’ll miss it all a little. But that serendipity also made us nodding acquaintances with every layer of hell the internet could provide. The casualness with which you might meet random witty people was also the same degree with which you could brush up against videos of people being shot dead by cops or bombed to death in Ukraine. The sheer amount of snuff available on Twitter is an indictment, and as much a consequence of Twitter’s boulevard-like structure as anything else. The platform was a bold experiment that gave us a lot of beautiful, funny moments, political education, and private benefits for many individuals. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that we’d all have been better off without it.
I find myself reflecting here on a tragically forgotten bit of editorial commentary from 1987 by journalist Ron Powers about the then recent suicide of Pennsylvania state treasurer R. Budd Dwyer—committed live, on-camera, in the wake of his conviction for accepting bribes. Powers briefly analyzed the various ways that different news outlets covered the suicide, what they showed and what they hid from viewers, concluding that, overall, a certain decency had been upheld. Powers concluded, “If an on-camera suicide were just another image in an image medium, it would mean … the culture had ceased to believe that anything was either important or trivial.”
When I first heard that line from Powers, my breath caught, simply because I knew in my bones that that dark future had come. What could be a better descriptor of Twitter than a realm where its users had ceased to believe anything was either important or trivial? For all its joys, that is the idiom of shitposting; sincere belief is to be mummified by irony, lest you appear an uncool “moralfag,” in the parlance of the platform that gave rise to the form: 4chan.
Why should we exalt attempts to recreate this in yet another online space? That, in the end, feels like what some people want to build on Bluesky, after all. But if Bluesky’s AT Protocol succeeds, it would be a rather different experience, with the important and trivial hemmed in by their respective laneways. And the boulevard would, finally, go dark.