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Elon Musk wants your help fixing Twitter’s algorithm

Photo Illustration by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Good morning. Fortune tech editor Alexei Oreskovic here, wishing you a happy Twitter open algorithm day.

At noon today, Pacific time, Elon Musk promises that he will "open source" Twitter's algorithm. What exactly that means, including whether Musk even has any intent to follow through, is completely unclear.

First off, when the clock strikes midday PT, it will strike midnight in Hong Kong, which means that it will be April 1. In Tokyo, it will already have been April Fools' Day for an hour. Most Tokyo residents will probably be fast asleep and not thinking about April Fools' Day pranks, but then again, they're not Elon Musk.

But Musk has been talking about opening up Twitter's internal mechanisms for some time, so there's a good chance there's at least some serious intent to the plan.

So what exactly will Twitter be revealing?

Earlier this month, Musk said the plan was to open source all code used to recommend tweets. "Our 'algorithm' is overly complex & not fully understood internally," he wrote, adding, "We're developing a simplified approach to serve more compelling tweets but it's still a work in progress. That'll also be open source."

So presumably we're not talking about the Twitter "source code," some of which was published on GitHub by a former employee whom Musk is now seeking to bring to justice. What Musk wants to make open source is the secret formula that Twitter uses to decide which tweets get pushed to the top of your feed, which users get VIP treatment, and what kinds of tweets get suppressed.

That information will help regular users, marketers, and trolls "game" the algorithm, so that their tweets, for better or for worse, get maximum exposure (this is one reason Google says it keeps its search engine algorithms top secret).

But open source doesn't just mean transparency. It also means that anyone can make their own contributions to the code—proposing changes, updates, and fixes to bugs. You may recall that Musk has axed about 75% of Twitter's staff, including many engineers. Is this simply an attempt to crowdsource Twitter's product development, getting unpaid volunteers to do the work Twitter once paid people to do? Possibly. But I think the plan actually has more potential to create problems, given Twitter's skeletal staff, than it does to solve them.

All the changes to the algorithm proposed by the public need to be reviewed and vetted and then incorporated into Twitter's actual code. That process is not going to be simple, especially at a company with limited resources and suffering from a brain drain of institutional knowledge about its code. We've already seen Twitter suffer several meltdowns in recent months. If Musk follows through and legitimately makes Twitter's algorithm open source, expect some turbulence.

Want to send thoughts or suggestions to Data Sheet? Drop a line here.

Alexei Oreskovic

Data Sheet’s daily news section was written and curated by Andrea Guzman.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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