Bluesky's Custom Algorithms Could Be the Future of Social Media

Bluesky's Custom Algorithms Could Be the Future of Social Media
Jun 2023

Social media algorithms can do wonderful things. They have the power to make or break careers, amplify political polarization (Facebook, Twitter), make people do dumb stuff for clicks, (YouTube), and supposedly promote Chinese Communist ideals to our children (TikTok, though that's up for debate).

Bluesky, though, is trying something different: You pick 'em. On May 26, the platform's developers rolled out My Feeds, a feature that lets people decide what they see. There are 50 such feeds available on the platform, which is in beta mode. Options range from feeds that present the most popular posts to ones that specialize in showing only cats, nudes, lewds, or pictures of the sitcom puppet Alf.

It's a move that fits in with Bluesky's decentralized vibe. In March, CEO Jay Graber said the company would replace the "master algorithm" favored by its rivals with "an open and diverse 'marketplace of algorithms.'"

At present, creating a feed requires some technical knowledge, but Bluesky developer Paul Frazee previously skeeted that it will become easier for users to generate their own feeds.

As a casual Bluesky user who recently started trying the platform, it's pretty great. In fact, it arguably could shape a new era of social media where users, not platform executives, are empowered to see what they want. Don't want to see the Elon fanboys? You don't need to. Want to see every popular tweet mentioning K-pop? You could. "It's very much a step in the right direction," says Noah Giansiracusa, a professor researching algorithms at Bentley University in Massachusetts. "We need more flexibility and more user choice."

It'd be a stark departure from where Twitter is heading, where it's increasingly difficult to find the good posts among the blue ticks. Then there are the algorithmically dictated choices presented to you at a whim by Elon Musk's constantly morphing What's New feed. In January it was menswear guy; this week it's AI bros asking what would happen if we made humanity's finest artworks bigger and also worse. In short, your Twitter experience is likely not what you want it to be.

Which is why Bluesky's willingness to hand over the reins to users seems so refreshing. "It feels like a marriage of Reddit and Twitter, against this decentralized, Web 3.0 background," says Jess Maddox, assistant professor at the University of Alabama and an internet culture expert.

Maddox is one of the Bluesky users who has added "Cat Pics," described by its creator as "a feed of cat pictures from the whole network (sometimes not cats)," to her feed. She equates it to something similar to scratching the cat itch by subscribing to a cat subreddit and mainlining feline pics.

Maddox welcomes the ability to pick different flavors of Bluesky. While the platform still has its faults, she says, the ability to choose feeds gives people more ownership of what they see feels refreshing. "People can be the master of their own experiences and have a bit more control over the kind of craziness they encounter."

That means you can pick a feed of Alf or NSFW content. I've started using the Catch Up algorithmic feed to get a quick overview of the main topics of conversation on Bluesky in the previous 24 hours, and therefore what I ought to be paying attention to, and the Popular With Friends feed, which shows me popular content from users I follow and some of the content they like, to tap into what's bubbling up in communities I'm interested in.

Some Bluesky feeds have been set up to fix specific problems with how the platform was operating. Blacksky, which promotes Black voices on the platform, was created by Rudy Fraser when he became frustrated at what he saw in Bluesky's original What's Hot feed. "It was the same people, and I wouldn't see Black people, really. It was only the people who had thousands of followers already who were getting visibility," he says.

Maddox hopes that empowering users to pick their own algorithms will get them to think more about what's involved in making them. "We're willing to do anything with algorithms but teach people about them," she says. And, she argues, with social media's copycat culture, Bluesky's choice to offer algorithmic alternatives could soon spread.

That's what Fraser, the creator of Blacksky, hopes will happen too. "Just being able to put the control of the algorithms into people's hands, I think, is the next big thing needed for social media."