Sunday, June 25, 2023

My Decades of Blueskying, and Hopes for the Bluesky Project [Updated 6/28/23]

 ***See updates to Key Ideas section that follow below (6/28/23)***

This vision also applies to the future of the Fediverse, Mastodon, and all of social media. [Update 8/9/23]

Having been thinking for decades about the potential of social media to offer steerable "bicycles for our minds" individually and collectively -- and becoming increasingly concerned by the directions of the past decade -- I now see some very encouraging patches of blue. 

I have been following and commenting generally on the Bluesky project that Jack Dorsey spun out from Twitter, and this April wrote about a similarly aligned project, the Initiative for Public Infrastructure led by Ethan Zuckerman. That post explained how the iDPI effort aligned with my ideas, and where I hoped it might go.

After using Bluesky for nearly two months, and reading some of the growing body of their thinking (in their blog posts and related details on Github) it seems timely for me to respond to their requests for feedback by outlining my thinking on where I hope they will take us. Even if Bluesky, the company, fails to achieve critical mass in its mission “to develop and drive large-scale adoption of technologies for open and decentralized public conversation,” it has potential to lay the foundations for next generation protocols and services that will. What I have seen so far -- building out Composable ModerationModeration in a Public Commons, and Algorithmic Choice -- seems well-aligned with my vision.

[...and the Pluriverse of social media in general]

This is a first, brief, and informal discussion draft, summarizing and pointing to ideas I hope the Bluesky team will be pursuing [with updates below]. I don't know how much of this is already in their long-term architectural plan. Of course it is not reasonable to expect the team to be far along in implementing much of what I suggest here -- that will be a massive and extended whole-of-society effort. My objective is simply to paint the vision, in hopes that they (and others) will share it, to ensure that their architecture is designed to extend in these directions as it develops. The hope is that like the web, this architecture will be generative and extensible enough to evolve over decades to provide a rich backbone for augmenting nearly all human discourse -- and the processes of its social mediation.

Following this brief summary are pointers to works of mine that expand on this vision in some detail.


The What is Bluesky? blog post says “In the federated network, people can move between cities depending on what kind of community they’d like to be in.” This analogy takes a step in the right direction, but strikes me as missing the essential multi-dimensionality of humanity's social web

The beauty of online discourse is that I can "be in" many virtual communities at once – I don’t need to “move between” them. Because these communities are virtual, I can participate in many at once, and interact with community members who also participate in many communities at once, as a giant web of overlapping Venn diagrams. I can have multiple "home" communities. At any given time, I should be able to have a view of my own composed virtual community, a view that includes whatever mix of communities I wish to participate in or just observe, ranked into my attention as I choose at the time. Feeds (and searches) should be composable and steerable to provide that view. 

This hyperlinking of public (and/or private) spaces is explained in Community and Content Moderation in the Digital Public Hypersquare (co-authored with Chris Riley). Much as web sites form a hyperlinked web that can be seamlessly connected with varying degrees of openness (manually, with links, or using web services), we can build webs of hyper-communities that are connected by our webs of connections to them and to their members. I refer to that as semipermeability, like a membrane that selectively passes some things and not others. As Ted Nelson said, “everything is deeply intertwingled.”

Ranking as the core task

Perhaps it is implicit, not yet documented, or I have missed it in the Bluesky materials, but it seems to me nearly all mediation boils down to ranking. Except in the most egregious cases, "moderation as removal" is anathema. "Filtering" is often narrowly understood as weeding out, not as ranking up or down. Egregious content might be downranked with prejudice, and quarantined, but the value of most content is in the eye of the beholder, and in the eye of those communities that beholders participate in based on shared norms and values. 

Done well, downranking can provide safety from bad content, and upranking can bubble up quality and value. Composability of ranking tools can work at both individual and community levels to blend a mix of rankings, weighted as appropriate and desired. Rankings can be based on many dimensions of attributes, with items coming to our attention based on which attention agents uprank or downrank them my how much, and what weight is given to each of those agents.

Composability should also be dynamically steerable. Think of “bicycles for our minds” and how we can steer them at will. And remember that these bicycles should steer us through the multidimensional and semipermeably overlapping web of hypercommunities.

Multilevel feed composition composed from multiple algorithms

I hope the Bluesky architects have this in mind, but have not seen it clearly stated. Currently My Feeds gives a list of pre-defined feed algorithms that we can view one at a time. A truly composable, steerable feed would have a higher level interface that lets us merge a mix of feeds, with defined relative weights. A steerable feed would allow those mixes and weights to be easily changed at will to suit our tasks and moods. Obviously, this full capability and the appropriate UIs for it will take time to develop, but I hope the architecture is being designed to provide extensibility and protocol support for this. Some UI options might be very simple, and some might be suited to those who desire fine granularity of control.

Multi-dimensional reputation based on explicit and/or implicit signals

I view reputation as essential to making ranking work well. Reputation cannot be adequately captured by simple lists. I have written frequently about “rate the raters and weight the ratings” as an extension of Google’s PageRank algorithm to develop what Scott Aaronson has called "eigentrust" (=“eigenreputation”). I have suggested this use implicit ratings -- like, shares, comments (and perhaps more value-indicative signals) – as well as explicit ratings (which might include labels). Feed algorithms can use these methods in an infinite variety of ways. As a simple example, a feed might be composed in part based on implicit ratings from users of some mix selected from followers of Fox, MSNBC, the NY Times, or People magazine – or alumni of Harvard, Ohio State, or Texas A&M, or members of some church or union. The beauty of this kind of computed PageRank-style "eigenreputation" is that it is far more nuanced, current, and broadly sourced than binary lists of who is vouched for or not by some list curator.

This reputation system should ultimately be multidimensional. Reputation ratings may be segmented with respect to specific subject domains and value orientations, and can be selectively sourced from specific communities of interest and value. That way content and people can be ranked in different ways for different purposes. While doing this at scale may seem very complex, my understanding is that Google does similar context-specific segmentation for PageRank. Resources to do that are not yet in hand, but as such services reach scale, funding models will follow.

Rebuilding our social mediation ecosystem

Communities and mediating services can be decoupled. The speech layer may be more tightly tied to specific communities than the reach layer. Real life communities and institutions may be re-enabled to mediate our online discourse, both for their direct membership and those who wish to follow them. The ecosystem that shaped and stabilized discourse in the real world should be reconstituted in the virtual world, where many of the same communities and institutions can add value. These signals of human judgment can be crowdsourced from their membership, but they can also derive from editorial curation sanctioned by these communities/institutions. Many providers of Bluesky algorithms might be tightly integrated into the technical infrastructure of these communities/institutions.