Bluesky and Nostr—two separate Twitter-like social platforms, both decentralized, and both backed by Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey—are growing rapidly as Elon Musk continues to make controversial changes to Twitter itself.

Bluesky released its long-awaited app for Android smartphones on Friday, almost two months after its iOS client went live on the Apple App Store. (The web client is still in pre-beta.) Bluesky access is still invite-only, but the growth of its user base is accelerating from about 1,000 to 2,500 new members a day, surpassing a total of 33,000 this weekend.

Bluesky is actually a proof-of-concept front-end to the underlying AT Protocol, which is intended to form the basis of a broad network of interoperable apps and services. Nostr is comparable to the AT Protocol, and is a framework under which more than a dozen apps and other services already operate.

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Notably, both are separate from Mastodon and ActivityPub, a long-running decentralized social network and protocol founded in 2016 and an early beneficiary of the Musk-inspired exodus from Twitter. Mastodon rapidly grew its user base from 300,000 to 2.5 million late last year., although both user growth and activity have since declined.

Nostr is also an acronym for "notes and other stuff transmitted by relays." Its ecosystem is somewhat difficult to join, as the decentralized protocol is based on public and private key cryptography, and thus uses a lot of jargon and technical language from that foundation. A user's canonical identity is his or her public key, and looks like this: npub1hpgg9mnu3ckf9kaju8y5mn79e7ymqwsk0m3fwfk78wzevn2av6ksgewwvf — and while you can register on a client for a username like ryan@snort.social, it can cost some cryptocurrency.

As a result, while Nostr has been embraced by technical communities, Bluesky has drawn a more diverse mix of users—from digital artists and NFT fans to political and social activists to people who post daily photos of food, cats, and other content that's more reminiscent of Twitter.

Even so, by some measures, Nostr is already much larger than Bluesky and the AT Protocol. With a variety of apps instead of just one—including Damus on iOS, Amethyst on Android, and the snort.social web intervace—Nostr could have as many as 16 million users, according to Nostr.Band, and as many as 780,000 daily active users.

But measuring activity across the Nostr universe is tricky: there are public keys interacting with the protocol, generating events, but a user might have dozens or hundreds of keys, and an "event" could be anything from a posted message to a query, ping, or automated action. As a result, different criteria will yield different results: public keys with attached user biographies number 2.25 million. Daily "high-quality pubkey writing events" hover around 8,000.

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While Dorsey is most publicly affiliated with Bluesky—which was first incubated within Twitter as that platform's long-term future—he is much more active on Nostr. Dorsey ruffled a few feathers this week when another Nostr user posted a Verge article that described Bluesky as a "shameless clone of Twitter."

"Unfortunately they went a bit too hard on focusing on a Twitter product and not developer community," Dorsey wrote in reply.

Soon afterward, the Bluesky team released a long list of projects in the AT Protocol ecosystem, and announced an update that added support for "app passwords," otherwise known as "burner passwords" or app-specific passwords. These special passwords allow users to grant access to their AT Protocol accounts without giving out their main credentials.

"The Bluesky app demonstrates how a microblogging client can be built on the AT Protocol with an intuitive user experience," the team wrote. "However, there is still much more to be done to fully explore the potential of this architecture."

One early benefit of the decentralized Bluesky approach is that usernames can be tied to web domain names, and thus serve as a form of verification. Bluesky CEO Jay Graber's username is @jay.bsky.team, and anyone linked to bsky.team can be considered official members of the Bluesky team.

Newcomers to Bluesky and Nostr frequently post about how different or better it is than Twitter, although most acknowledging that they're early adopters and are currently isolated from the potential chaos of a more mainstream audience.

Indeed, there are concerted efforts to migrate various communities from Twitter to Bluesky en masse, with users compiling invites and bringing in leaders and influencers in a variety of affinity groups: Black Twitter, Science Twitter, and yes, Crypto Twitter.

Bringing Black Twitter Into Bluesky
Image: @aliafonzy.bsky.social

Along with rapid growth comes a few growing pains. Some of them are technical: Bluesky has periodically struggled with slow performance and broken features, and hashtags are not supported—although the arrival of self-proclaimed hashtag inventor Chris Messina on the service may change that. But other challenges are familiar parts of any new community's evolution.

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On Bluesky, a great deal of conversation has surrounded moderation and safety, whether related to over-active bots that start interacting with each other and get stuck in an infinite loop, or familiar debates over J.K. Rowling or other topics that quickly trigger Godwin's law.

Demands for the ability to block or mute other users or threads reached a crescendo last week, prompting Graber to lay out the AT Protocol's planned approach to the problem.

"We’re designing an open, composable labeling system for moderation," Graber wrote, noting that both centralized and decentralized social networks face different challenges. "We’ve improved on this situation by making it easier to switch servers, and by separating moderation out into structurally independent services."

"We gotta finish the core mission first," wrote lead Bluesky developer Paul Frazee when a user asked when support for GIFs and videos would be added. "We're just shipping the curation, moderation, and federation tools first... [which are] especially important for us to open things up."

Meanwhile, on Nostr, a debate has erupted over the implementation of "Zaps," which are interactions distinct from likes, replies, or reposts and support blockchain integration for things like micropayments. By adding value to the interaction, Nostr users hope a "Zap" will be more meaningful to both give and receive.

However, the evolution of "Zaps" have turned some Nostr users against the old-fashioned "like," which they're suggesting be removed from the ecosystem entirely. The latest release of Snort.social and of the iOS Nostr client Damus introduced an "OnlyZaps" mode, where the "like" button is hidden, which critics have said will lead to an early "Balkanization" of the community.

I hope someday reposts and zaps completely replace the need for “likes”. Reposts and zaps are true value exchange…and have a real cost: your reputation or money. Likes are superficial and exist only to inform an algorithm. Relevance algorithms have their place, but they are best informed by a truly costly action.
Image: jack@cash.app

"I like this debate," Dorsey posted on Nostr, dubbing it "#zapgate." He wrote, "I hope someday reposts and zaps completely replace the need for likes."

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"Reposts and zaps are true value exchange and have a real cost: your reputation or money," he explained. "Likes are superficial and exist only to inform an algorithm. Relevance algorithms have their place, but they are best informed by a truly costly action."

"Wow, so this is about either your reputation or money?" another user replied. "Shame, as I thought this was all about fun."

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