Twitter Rival Bluesky Has a Nudes Problem

Twitter Rival Bluesky Has a Nudes Problem
Written by Techbot

As people have flocked to Bluesky in recent weeks, the platform has been hit with a problem as old as the internet: nudity. Among those who recently joined the decentralized social network established by Twitter cofounder and former CEO Jack Dorsey are large contingents of the tech, trans, and sex worker communities who have brought their own social norms to the chaotically exciting social platform.

Caught up in that excitement—particularly around one uncontrollable section of Bluesky called the hellthread, where a coding error meant that anyone who had participated in the thread was bombarded with notifications—many chose to share nude images of themselves.

“Things just got wacky,” says Flea, a trans Bluesky user who joined via the network’s waiting list around a month ago. “Everyone in the thread was getting notified of every post. Hundreds of people all roped together in a thread that was so broken that you couldn’t mute it.” Despite the chaos of the hellthread, Flea and others felt safe. “I could open up to these people and be vulnerable. That’s something you rarely see anymore. Especially for trans people,” she says. So she shared a flirty picture on Bluesky.

She wasn’t alone. In the chaos of the early days of Bluesky, that movement gained its own momentum, leading to a wave of nudes and lewds, many of which made their way onto the What’s Hot page, the platform’s equivalent of Twitter’s For You tab. In response to criticism from some users who didn’t want to see nudity on the What’s Hot page, Bluesky has since changed its approach, stopping any nude content being algorithmically presented to users.

The decision was encapsulated by a meme shared on the network, using a screenshot from animated sitcom King of the Hill, where one character (labeled “Bluesky users”) lifts her shirt while another (labeled “Jay,” for Bluesky CEO Jay Graber) tries to discourage them from doing so.

“It shows the challenges of moderating a growing platform in action,” says Carolina Are, an innovation fellow at the Center for Digital Citizens at Northumbria University. When platforms are in their infancy, Are says, it’s possible to take a hands-off, organically adapting approach to moderation. “But as soon as the platform grows, and as soon as it becomes more mainstream in terms of audience, there are some things that are divisive—and sadly, nudity is divisive,” she says.

The decision to limit the spread of nudity may have been affected in part by the potential future growth of Bluesky as it tries to move out of its beta phase and become a viable alternative to Twitter, according to Are, who believes Bluesky’s team could well be asking themselves questions like: “If we want to grow, and there’s a bunch of people complaining about seeing ass, will we grow if we keep allowing that?”

In many ways, Bluesky is encountering—early on in its development—a fundamental question that every online platform or presence eventually has to answer. Sexual expression is a driver of growth for online platforms, while simultaneously also being the first thing that people latch on to as unacceptable once a platform reaches any kind of critical mass.

“My opinions on this boil down to, ‘Yeah I’d rather not see it’ or have it readily accessible,” says one Bluesky user who raised questions about why there had been backlash to the ban, and who requested anonymity because they had already experienced pushback from fellow Bluesky users for voicing their opinion. “Tons of people in my life have had issues with sex and porn addiction, and it being available behind a quick setting change on-off switch doesn’t really help,” he says.

The anonymous user suggests that Bluesky could follow an approach taken by Reddit, which allows users to block access to all properly-labeled “not safe for work” (NSFW) subreddits. “Bluesky has their current ‘turn off explicit content’ system, but you fall into the explicit labeling issue,” he says. Additionally, he says that the current system labels some content as nudity when it isn’t, while missing some that is.

For Sarah T. Roberts, faculty director at the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, Bluesky’s challenges in tackling the wave of nudes highlights a naivety around user behavior. “Once again, a platform comes to market and acts surprised when users try to game and break things, and when they post nudity,” she says.

That lack of preparedness for what Roberts thought would be an inevitability could scupper Bluesky’s future growth. “Content moderation decisions as an afterthought, whatever level of permissiveness is decided upon, are costly both from a financial and a PR perspective,” she says. “Surely it wouldn’t have taken a genius to predict this turn of events. So why is it once again a surprise and not an inevitability?”

Whether the platform expected such user behavior isn’t known. Jay Graber, CEO of Bluesky, forwarded an interview request to Bluesky’s unnamed press team, who declined to provide anyone for an interview but instead directed WIRED to their FAQ page. One member of the Bluesky team posted that the decision to implement a “no boobs (or dicks, or asses) on whats [sic] hot” policy was “a difficult line to walk.” By default, Bluesky users will have a “show nudity” toggle switched on when they join, and “would prefer to keep it that way.” That means if people proactively follow a user who decides to share nudity, they will see it. “But whats [sic] hot is a bit different as you didn’t opt in,” they skeeted.

Carolina Are calls the decision to remove nudes and lewds from the What’s Hot page a form of shadowbanning—the subject of her research, as well as something she has experience with personally. “They’ve effectively already limited the chances of growth for anyone who shares nudity and sexuality,” she says. She worries that Bluesky is conflating penises, which are genitals, with breasts and asses, which aren’t necessarily sexual. “This is where things become really tricky to govern,” she says.

Flea found the sharing of nudes and lewds amazing because it showed that people—including trans people—felt confident, safe, and empowered on Bluesky. Still, she realizes why the approach had to change. “Not everyone wants to see lewd photos,” she says. “It’s not just about ‘being lewd,’ I think it’s also about sharing your whole self with the world, and if that’s something people want, that option should be there.”

Are suggests that in the same way, as users are asked whether they want to encounter nudity from users they’re following, Bluesky could ask whether users want to encounter nudity on What’s Hot when they join. “It’s quite interesting they’re making that decision for everyone,” she says. “It’s fine that the people who don’t consent to seeing nudity aren’t seeing it. But how about those who do want to see it?”

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