Elon Musk suggests Twitter could open source its algorithm ‘next week’


twitter logo in a cage
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

Update: File this one under things Elon said but didn’t happen. Update 2, 3/17/23: Elon Musk is now saying Twitter will open source all code used to recommend tweets on March 31st. Let’s see what happens…

Original story below:

A new tweet by Twitter owner Elon Musk suggests the company is preparing to open source its algorithm as soon as next week — unless, of course, it’s all a joke. (One never knows these days!) However, Musk has been a longtime proponent of the idea that Twitter’s recommendation algorithm should be open sourced, having repeatedly stated that belief even before he took the helm of the social network and again when announcing his intention to acquire Twitter in April 2022.

In response to a tweet today that urged him to open source Twitter, Musk remarked “prepare to be disappointed at first when our algorithm is made open source next week,” then noting that “it will improve rapidly.”

If serious, this would be one of the first commitments that referenced any sort of deadline for the open sourcing of Twitter’s algorithm — and one that observers will likely be watching to see if actually met.

As TechCrunch’s Paul Sawers reported in December, Twitter has been under increasing pressure from others in the broader open source community, including Twitter alternative Mastodon, which saw a surge in usage following Musk’s takeover of the microblogging network in October.

Meanwhile, Tumblr owner and Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg recently said his company’s blogging platform would adopt the same ActivityPub protocol that now powers Mastodon. Soon after, Flickr CEO Don MacAskill began weighing a similar plan.

Open sourcing Twitter’s algorithm could potentially help to keep lawmakers and regulators at bay, amid increased political interest in how social platforms’ content recommendations work. Not only is the U.S. Supreme Court now hearing arguments over the role that the YouTube algorithm had in recommending ISIS videos to users, but there are also conversations around the need for TikTok oversight that have grown more heated following reports revealing the company had manipulated viral trends and even spied on journalists. By open sourcing, Twitter may hope to avoid similar scrutiny.

In addition, Musk could shift the focus away from other moves, like firing ethical API teams, limiting API access and, most recently, how he reportedly asked Twitter engineers to investigate why his own Twitter engagement was dropping, which then forced an algorithm change that boosted his tweets — something he’s now attributed to a bug.

Musk, of course, is not the first Twitter exec to suggest that open sourcing would be the best path forward.

Notably, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey last year expressed regret that Twitter had ever been turned into a company in the first place, saying that, instead, Twitter should have been developed as an open and verifiable protocol. He also shared that same idea with Musk over text messages — this came to light during the legal discovery process related to Musk’s litigation against Twitter when he tried to get out of the deal. In the texts, Dorsey said Twitter should be based on an “open source protocol, funded by a foundation,” to which Musk replied, “super interesting idea.”

Dorsey now is proceeding to build that vision with Bluesky, an open source project spun out of Twitter that’s developing a decentralized social networking protocol known as ADX. Though Bluesky has yet to publicly launch its app, which would demonstrate its system in action, some people who had signed up for Bluesky’s waitlist were last week emailed a survey asking them for further information about themselves and their preferred platform. The email hinted that Bluesky was nearing usability, noting that the waitlist had seen over 1 million sign-ups and people would be invited to test out the Bluesky app in “the coming weeks.”

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