This post is the third in a series of posts about Blacksky. Be sure to check out the previous post to get up to speed.
In the technological realm, creativity by African Americans is regularly dismissed as cleverness, instead of being interpreted as smart, ingenious, or innovative.
-Ravvon Fouché (2006, p. 647)
We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace and people’s community control of modern technology.
-Black Panther Party 10 Point Program
Some people consider Bluesky to be a niche social network. I'm sure those same people consider Blacksky to be a niche social network within a niche social network. And although I think tech people recognize that you can build very successful 3rd party applications (whatever success means to you) on top of robust platforms and within thriving ecosystems, that recognition seems to fall short of Bluesky being robust and Blacksky being successful.
I feel like I'm repeating myself a lot when I call Blacksky a success. I feel like I'm belaboring the point. But with less than $1000 (community and non-profit donations), some lonely hours reading documentation that is somehow worse than Salesforce's and throwing together some Rust code (a language I only learned this year) I was able to build something that has now been used millions and millions and millions of times (over 5 million when this is published and probably millions more after).
I've been accepted into the Google for Startups Cloud Program, my WIRED interview from earlier this year was cited in a Supreme Court amicus brief, I began partnering with and contributing to Open Measures (a tool for helping researchers identify disinformation and hateful content online), and Blacksky has been mentioned in news articles and blogposts from Le Monde to Buffer and many more.
As the Bluesky devs love to point out, most of the custom feeds on Bluesky are built with a tool called Skyfeed that provides a UI for end-users to design their own social media algorithms with clicks instead of code. Blacksky is decidedly not built this way and is 100% custom. I'm also very hands-on with it down to removing and labeling individual posts in a pseudo-moderator capacity and finding new users to add to Blacksky.
To some people though, none of what Blacksky is or has done matters. They have doubts about what it will be. As one potential funder put it, they "have some concerns around if [Blacksky's] value proposition is unique enough to sufficiently take on the number of incumbents in the space." Which is really just a fancy way to say they think Blacksky will fail. But fail at what exactly? Because my purpose with Blacksky is not to be the next Black social network; it's to be the last one.
Closing all doors behind me
(The last Black social network)
So like Issa said in one of the best acceptance speeches of all-time, my goal with Blacksky is to, without any shame, close all doors behind me. To be the last Black social network is not a claim that would be feasible for any project from its inception but I think is possible because of 2 unique aspects of Bluesky that most people don't really understand: the underlying AT Protocol and the power of open source.
The protocol that the Bluesky app is built on, atproto, is designed to support other social modes. The Bluesky app is in some ways "just" a reference implementation of microblogging, created to ensure the protocol actually works for users and developers.
In early 2024, when the production network is federated, it will be possible to build new social apps on atproto that the millions of existing Bluesky users will be able to use (if they choose) without having to create a new account.
Bluesky has owned up to their poor messaging, but from the beginning their focus was on the protocol. And the protocol is important! Its many promises were the reason I signed up and why I keep building (lord knows I'm given a new reason to stop daily).
Words mean things and "protocol" in this case means how you communicate, but it doesn't decide what you communicate. Right now the only whats going through AT Protocol are microblogging messages formatted in a way to show up nicely on your web browser or mobile phone but also in a way that a 3rd-party dev like myself (i.e. not on the Bluesky payroll) can start storing them in our own databases. We do so to build the feeds users engage with and consume, to (soon) be able to do actual takedowns of posts and accounts, to (soonish) label content as "spam" or "disinformation" or "hate speech", and to (later-than-soonish) integrate experiences across apps.
There's a big TBD on that last one and even I have a hard time imagining what the user experience will be like. But at a technical level, what I can say is Bluesky is poised to be more than a microblogging platform. The power in the protocol is that other people (in this case people who aren't me) will be able to build job boards, dating apps, and video streaming(?) social apps and Blacksky will work across all of them on the same infrastructure.
To put it plainly, it will be someone else's job to come up with the next TikTok, the next Reddit, or the next LinkedIn. My only job will be to integrate it into Blacksky (which should be easy) and amplify, protect, and moderate Black content no matter where it is on the network.
Because this future idea of Blacksky would be free to use and open source, it creates a positive-sum environment (to borrow a term popular with web3) which just means there's not a very compelling incentive to compete but there is a strong incentive to collaborate.
Early on (read: like 3 months ago) people would compare Blacksky to Spill (as an incumbent I guess). This makes sense if you think that with Blacksky I'm trying to build the next Black social network. But as mentioned, I'm hoping to build the last. Just as Meta's Threads has integrated with ActivityPub, Spill could integrate with AT Protocol soon (and Blacksky). People are already talking about these more integrated social experiences. (Your urge to pit technology projects against each other is probably just capitalism peaking through)
So suppose these venture capitalists gave millions (or millions more) to someone else to build The Black Everything App™️ – what then? Well, I think an open source project if it exists first and gains popularity will always beg the question, "why did you go off and build your own thing when you could have contributed to such and such?"
Blacksky gets to benefit from AT Protocol's network effects and would in turn mutually benefit any other social app that integrates with it.
Community Control of Technology
(What Huey and Elaine said)
If you've read either of the infamous TechCrunch articles on the subject, you'd know I've been on the frontlines for Bluesky's antiblackness issues. But what has been shocking to me is how people have found the time and energy to talk down on Bluesky (a fledgling startup building open source software) out of one side of their mouth and praise closed source platforms run by literal white supremacists and people welcoming of Nazis out of the other. It's really inexcusable.
You are not making a political stance by staying on Twitter or Substack. These are commercial applications and your options are to be a user, customer, partner, investor, and/or employee. What you can never do is own the software or divest from the business side without also giving up the software. To be a user is to support the mission of a company. Even Reddit's user rebellion from this summer (only possible because of the unique role moderator's play in communities) was thwarted.
The alternative to being used and abused by corporations? Open source alternatives. This blog is hosted on an open source Substack alternative called Ghost; and because I self-host I don't even have to pay the monthly fee.
This was at least in part what Huey Newton was referring to when he amended the 10th point of the Black Panther's 10 point program. Technology has changed rapidly since the 70s but Sister Elaine Brown puts the 10th point in a more modern context:
Life goes forwards, not backwards, so there’s no point in us looking back at this point. Seize this new technology, all the new technology. Deal with it! ‘Cause we’re not gonna unknow anything anyway. And make that technology act in a desired manner as both a tool and a weapon. "The Russians weaponized social media" -- well perhaps they did. Well, why can’t we begin to weaponize social media?
-Sister Elaine Brown Discusses Community Control of Modern Technology
This isn't to take away any of the organizing already happening on centralized sites. The NYPD is launching a $500 million project to encrypt their radio communications because protestors were posting about police locations on social media. That's powerful. But there comes a time when it's time to move on. When pro-Palestinian voices are actively being censored it might be time to move on, for example.
Here is the problem with Bluesky besides the obvious antiblackness. I can’t post about the football game on or the latest episode of housewives on this app. It’s for news and bland content and social issues
Tools like Bluesky and AT Protocol have their own tradeoffs and considerations (what @ntnsndr.in describes as "implicit feudalism" for one) but personally my belief in self-determination extends to my technology use and development. And the opportunity to build out an extensible Black social network that can be controlled by community instead of corporations, that doesn't require being segregated from the broader social space, and reflects the many aspects of the diaspora (not just whatever is trendy at the time or what a corporation is pushing on me) is too important to pass up.
P.S. Thank you to everyone who knowingly (or unknowingly) contributes to, uses, shares, and otherwise supports Blacksky. While there isn't a ton of celebrity content or other entertainment topics as of yet, it has attracted a lot of Blackademics and organizers. My comrades are always impressed by the relevant info and news streams I can pass on and the source of all that has been Blacksky 🖤.