Musk said Twitter would open source its algorithm – then fired the people who could
Like so many of his promises, it's probably one he can't keep
Opinion On February 21, Twitter god-king Elon Musk proclaimed "our algorithm is made open source next week." He added it wouldn't work well at first, "but it will improve rapidly!" That hasn't happened.
Twitter algorithm to be open sourced 'next week,' says MuskREAD MORE
Musk has been claiming he wanted to open source Twitter's algorithm even before he took over the social network and again when he announced his intention to acquire it in April 2022. Here we are, and nothing's changed.
<Sarcasm>I am so surprised.</Sarcasm>
Well, actually, some things have changed. You see, the Twitter algorithm we're talking about is the rules that rank content on the platform. Each post has a value determined by a set of rules. If you think of it as Twitter's version of Google PageRank, you won't be far wrong.
However, if you criticize Musk on Twitter, strange things happen. In my case, I've gone from average posts having hundreds to thousands of retweets to dozens. In the meantime, Musk has put a big thumb on the algorithm to make sure you see his tweets. Funny that!
But those kinds of changes are easy. Open sourcing the code is hard.
Now, Musk does know a thing or two about marketing and engineering management. You don't build Tesla and SpaceX without some genius. But when it comes to software, he's proven clueless.
I mean, firing more than half your staff is not a good way to get any software successfully out the door. In the most recent example, Twitter managed to foul up its own use of its API on March 6. The result? Twitter's links, images, and videos all failed for a while.
Musk responded: "This platform is so brittle (sigh)." No, it isn't.
I find it nothing short of amazing that, despite firing so many people – from 7,500 to a little under 2,000 in months – Twitter continues to run as well as it does. That speaks of a platform that's remarkably stable.
But open sourcing it? That would require you to have software developers and engineers who know the code behind the algorithm and what needs to be done to open source that code. Those people are gone.
Twitter's former open source lead, Will Norris, told me:
When I joined, there were already a number of large modernization efforts underway that had big open source components. The Pants build system was being replaced by Bazel. Work was happening to prepare to eventually replace Apache Aurora and Mesos with Kubernetes. And, we were already some of the largest users of Apache Kafka, Hadoop, and Scala. We also had a custom fork of the JVM [Java Virtual Machine], which we hoped to eventually open source. There was a lot of amazing work happening, and they successfully hired really good people from those communities to work on those projects.
And then 2022 happened :-\
Norris continued: "Most of the key people that were working on open source at Twitter have left. All of the engineers that I worked with on open source are gone."
In short, Musk can't open source Twitter's code because he literally doesn't have the people who know the code.
Ironically, Musk does understand open source's value. Back on June 12, 2014, Tesla announced that it wouldn't initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use its technology. Musk wrote that he believes "that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla's position."
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When you look at it closely, Tesla adopted a framework something like that of the Open Invention Network's patent non-aggression pact, which protects Linux's patents. Musk was right. This has helped Tesla.
In late 2022, Tesla took this idea further and opened up its Tesla EV charging connector and charge port designs. Now called the North American Charging Standard (NACS), Tesla hopes – with reason – that it will become the default standard for EV charging. If successful, this will be a big win for Tesla.
Opening up Twitter wouldn't help to that degree, but it would be helpful. Conceivably an open algorithm could help Twitter retain users now heading over to open source-based social networks such as Mastodon.
Or maybe not. Still, open sourcing Twitter's nuts and bolts can only help the platform. Now, if only they hadn't fired most of their engineers, I could actually see this happening. As it is, I won't be holding my breath. ®
Update on Friday, March 31, 2023
Twitter says it has now finally open sourced "many" parts of its code base, such as the recommendation engine that powers its For You timeline.
PS: For what it's worth, Twitter previously made some bits and bobs of code available as open source, here.