Did you know Twitter has an open-source arm? This is what it's been up to
Bluesky thinking includes blueprints for distributed social network
After several years of work, Twitter's open-source offshoot Bluesky has published some code and more information about what it's doing – but not a new social network yet.
Bluesky has developed a prototype of a new "self-authenticating social protocol" which it calls ADX.
This is an abbreviation for Authenticated Data eXperiment, and some source code is available on GitHub.
For non-programmers, there's more to be gleaned from Bluesky's Ecosystem Overview, which makes it clear that the company has put some effort into researching existing tools, protocols, and services in this area. The document lists and discusses eight protocols and five applications that are already out there.
In addition, the GitHub project page also has a long and detailed description of the architecture of the ADX protocol.
What there isn't yet is anything resembling a new site or service, or even really the tools to build one – but the research looks solid. The documents identify some weak points of the existing tools, and discuss what Bluesky feels must be done to address them.
There are already lots of social networking sites out there, and indeed these things long predate even the World Wide Web. The Usenet News service has been around since the 1980s, although even 20 years ago it was flooded with spam.
Existing distributed social networks, such as Mastodon, can be compared to email services. Email is already distributed and federated: anyone on any email service can email anyone else on any other instance, and communicate with them.
You very probably get an email service provided for free by your ISP, and it's also quite likely that you don't use it. The problem is that while it works absolutely fine, if you change ISP, you will very likely lose access to that particular email address, including all your email if you kept it on your ISP's servers.
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And since accounts on other services are often tied to an email address, that's a big problem: to change email provider also means updating your accounts on dozens of other sites, and that may require access to your old email account.
As an example, while most of the original 1990s messenger services (MSN Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and so on) are all long gone, one of the oldest, ICQ, is still around. But if you can't remember your old credentials, the account is probably tied to an email address that you used to have decades ago – and to which you also don't have access any more.
So most tech-savvy types use an independent external provider for their email: either a freebie such as Gmail or Hotmail, or maybe a paid account. The hardcore host their own.
Today, both Facebook and Twitter are identity providers as well as social networks. You can log into many other services using your Facebook credentials, such as Spotify. In time, they will probably die, too, or just fade away. Myspace, bought for $580 million then sold for $20 million, is still around. Bebo, sold for $850 million and bought back for $1 million, is not.
The same can happen to, say, Mastodon. Although Mastodon instances are federated across the Fediverse, if your home instance disappears, there goes your account and all your connections to people on other instances. That happened to one of the larger Mastodon instances, witches.town, in 2018.
Arguably, the giant FAANG services should be broken up. If they were, maybe they would gradually wither away. Or just suddenly disappear, like Google Plus and Google Buzz and Google Orkut. Along with all their user-generated content and connections.
This is the problem that Bluesky is working on. Independent accounts, which can be used across multiple separate, federated, social networks, but which don't rely on any single hosting site. An account which can survive the disappearance of the server, or service, that it originated from.
Put it like that and it's hard not to wish them well. ®