Expecting the expected

With Twitter doing its best impression of the Titan submersible, the race is on to find the next big social network. Previous contender Mastodon missed its opportunity the last time there was a Twitter exodus (I saw it described today as puritan, inward-looking and Protestant, which I think is very accurate), so the current favourite is Bluesky – which was partly funded by Twitter, and has Twitter co-founder and terrible arse Jack Dorsey on its board. Facebook is expected to launch its own contender, Threads, tomorrow.

I think Threads will get the big numbers. Not because it’s necessarily the best service, but for multiple reasons. The first is scale: Meta, Facebook’s owner, can handle massive user numbers. The second is familiarity: it looks and works like Instagram. But the third and arguably most important reason is because Meta knows what to do about nazis.

I’ve not been online as long as some, but I’ve still been online for nearly thirty years now. And every single social platform I’ve used, from Usenet and CompuServe through forums and Web 2.0 and social media and more, has faced the same problem: sooner or later, significant numbers of people, including but not limited to nazis, will try and abuse it and weaponise it against marginalised people. The question is never whether it’ll happen; just when it’ll happen and how.

There’s a question every technology product should ask, and that is: how can this be abused? And despite thirty-odd years of social media online, all too often the question is not considered until the abuse is already well under way.

Bluesky and Mastodon and the various others haven’t been through this yet to any significant degree, and whenever I try to get clarity on how exactly Bluesky will protect marginalised people the answer appears to be a vague collection of optimism and vibes – which is entirely in keeping with a Jack Dorsey product – or a promise that if Bluesky isn’t doing its job right, you can go to another service that uses the same protocol. But at the moment, there are no other services that use the same protocol.

Inevitably, the bad people are now starting to move across. Some of the worst anti-trans bigots are there now, along with some of the worst of the far right, because owning Twitter is no fun: bigots need people to abuse and to orchestrate pile-ons against, which is why bigots aren’t happy to stay on their own bigot-centred social networks such as Gab, Parler and increasingly, Twitter. And the only solution that Bluesky appears to offer is blocking, which Twitter also has and which didn’t stop Twitter becoming unusable for marginalised people.

I have no great love for Meta, Facebook’s parent company. And I fear Mark Zuckerberg is part of the right-wing techbro mob that’s doing so much damage to democracy right now. But in the short term at least, I know that Facebook and Instagram have a reasonable set of tools to protect their users from abusers on those platforms, and so Threads will have too. I know “don’t make it too easy for nazis” is an astonishingly low bar to clear, but as far as I can see right now only Threads looks like it’ll clear it.