Musk wants to make Twitter open source. What does that mean?

Musk has been consistent with his statements. More than a couple of times, he has advocated for making the algorithm “open source.” Most recently, he said he will “make Twitter better than ever by enhancing the product with new features, making the algorithms open source to increase trust, defeating the spam bots, and authenticating all humans.”

Making the algorithms open source probably means that Musk will be putting more resources in Twitter’s Bluesky project.

Back in December 2019, Jack Dorsey announced that, “Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.” The Bluesky community grew from that initial push.

The system got up and initially organized in early 2020 just as the pandemic kicked off. Earlier this year, Bluesky PBLLC was formed. This Public Benefit LLC (PBLLC) is working to implement the vision of the BlueSky project as an independent organization from Twitter.

Earlier this month, the group released an extended update on their work. It is an important read because it lays out the next steps for the project. In doing so, it is clear that there is a lot left to do to make it reality.

The basic problem is that the network has to satisfy three conditions. It needs to be portable so that “people can switch providers without losing their identity or social graph.” It needs to scale because “operating at scale requires engineering for scale.” And of course, trust needs to be built into the very core of the system. Everything needs to be rebuilt to build a transparent and verifiable system.

To satisfy all of these conditions, the team is focusing on the self-authenticating protocol. There are correlates in other domains. In law, a self-authenticating document requires no extrinsic evidence in order to be considered authentic. In computer science, authenticated data structures have the quality of being independently verifiable.

Self-authenticating protocols are different:

We’re not describing what we’re building as a federated or p2p network, or as a blockchain network, because it doesn’t fall neatly in any of these categories. It could be described as a hybrid federated network with p2p characteristics, but it’s more descriptive to focus on the capabilities – self-authenticating identities and data – than on network topology. Our team has previously built leading decentralized web protocols and blockchain networks, and is working on synthesizing the best of what we’ve seen into something new. For some aspects, we’ll be able to use pieces that already exist, and for others, we’ll have to come up with solutions of our own. Stay tuned for updates, we’ll share more soon.

Right now, the system is still in the early stages, but it is still interesting what the group has settled on. It is a hybrid network that isn’t a federated system or a blockchain. It however contains a little of both.

The connection here to policy might not be immediate, but it is important. There is a growing contingent of people calling for interoperability mandates to solve the problems of big tech. Bluesky is trying to do exactly that and it is clear that some fundamental research needs to be conducted.

To be fair of those who are calling for interoperability, it seems to have worked elsewhere. Health records must be interoperable. But in effect, those rules just give patients the ability to look at key data on their phones or other devices.

Telephone number portability also worked in an earlier age of technology and is cited as a correlate for this problem. Still, the method that was eventually settled on to implement this requirement of the Telecom Act of 1996, just added a database to the already existing digital system. But it probably wouldn’t have worked a decade previous. Digital telephone switching was first put into the Bell system beginning in the early 1980s and was only made completely digital a couple of years back. If Congress tried to make numbers portable in the 1970s, telephone companies probably would have struggled to implement it.

Importantly, number portability is a kind of identity portability. What Bluesky is attempting to create is an identity that is verifiable that connects to social graph data at scale. The task at hand is orders of magnitude more complex than all previous efforts.

All of this uncertainty gives me pause whether or not Twitter can make it happen. Musk wants to make the system open source, but it is still unclear if all of the conditions can be satisfied at scale.


First published Apr 27, 2022