OPINION: An open-source Twitter is possible, but unlikely

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by Kevin Schofield

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This week’s news that Elon Musk is buying Twitter, with the aim of turning it back into a private company with even less public accountability, has led some to wonder if an “open source” version of Twitter could be created as an alternative for those who don’t. Don’t trust Musk — or the billionaires who run the other major social media networks — to appropriately manage the balance between supporting free speech and facilitating the spread of corrosive misinformation.

Perhaps the easiest part of building a Twitter clone is the software itself: the core technology underlying Twitter and other Internet services is not very complex, and a large part of it today consists of “off-the-shelf” components. That’s not to say there aren’t technical challenges. Twitter claims to have around 215 million daily active users worldwide, and to serve that many customers requires the software to be designed specifically to distribute the load and replicate information in data centers around the world. It also requires translating the software into multiple written languages ​​to build the Twitter web app and mobile apps.

But these are largely “solved” and well-documented problems. There’s a bit of magic in how Twitter decides which tweets to include in our individual feeds, and that’s further complicated by its advertising business which also requires serving us relevant ads. Recommender systems like these can be very complicated, especially since there is a parallel industry that is constantly trying to play these systems to their advantage. If an open source Twitter removed ads, it would greatly simplify the service, although it would raise new questions about how to increase revenue to keep the service running. Last year, Twitter spent $1.24 billion on research and development (R&D), much of which went to writing and maintaining code for the service and associated ad placement system.

However, Twitter spent even more on its operations last year, nearly $1.8 billion. A big part of that is the infrastructure: the data centers, raw computing power, and networking needed to host and deliver the service, and the personnel to build, run, and maintain this massive global infrastructure.

The good news for a possible open-source Twitter clone is that the lower layers of this infrastructure could be outsourced to a “platform” company, like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. These companies purchase the machines and keep them operational in their data centers, hosting customer software there. Amazon and Microsoft charge AWS and Azure, however, and both are profit centers for their respective companies, meaning they sell hosting services above their own cost. AWS and Azure are cost-effective for small and medium businesses that don’t want to run their own data centers. However, on the global scale of a service such as Twitter, it would be cheaper to own and operate the infrastructure itself (as Twitter does today) than to outsource it, especially to a potential competitor, such as Amazon or Microsoft.

Even if using AWS or Azure, an open source Twitter clone would still need to manage its own services running on top of the underlying hosting service – software deployment, update deployment, load balancing load between data centers and ongoing performance monitoring. It would also need its own R&D staff to build and test the service. But its operational needs go far beyond that – several additional teams would need to be hired to cover critical functions. This hypothetical company would need content staff, with multilingual and multicultural skills to monitor offensive and illegal content, including child pornography, black market and copyright violations, and with support staff to customers to manage forgotten passwords; blocked, suspended and hacked accounts; and payment processing. Security experts should be on hand to prevent and respond to hackers, phishing schemes, viruses, and denial of service attacks.

A government and public affairs team would be needed to manage the geopolitical landscape and the many pitfalls of running a global service, including how to refer to contested regions of the world, such as Taiwan and Tibet, and how to respond to national governments. such as China and Russia, which require censorship of anti-government speech and block services that do not comply.

And if an open-source Twitter clone service went that far, it would still end up with the same problem that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media companies face, which is how to set a policy on what is acceptable content when no one will be happy when theirs is censored content. In the end, someone still has to make policy, and an open source system that is supposedly run in the public interest always needs someone (or a group) to make those decisions.

Assuming all of these hurdles can be overcome, the service would still have to overcome the biggest hurdle of all: getting a critical mass of people to sign up and use it. Social networks are subject to a principle known in tech circles as Metcalfe’s Law, that the value of a network is equal to the square of the number of endpoints in that network, because each individual has a connection potential direct with all the others. . A social network with 10 people is worth 100; a network of 100 people is worth 10,000. When you reach 1,000 people, its value increases to 1 million. Twitter, with its 215 million daily active users, is worth 46 quadrillion.

As a network grows, its value increases explosively and it becomes almost impossible for a newcomer to catch up. People hang out on a social network, like Facebook or Twitter, when there are people they want to interact with. Conversely, they do not spend time there when there are no people. When a network has many people, it is much easier to rally more; when there are few people, it is much more difficult to get them to join (or stay). The history of social networks is littered with examples of those that failed to reach a critical mass of users beyond which the “network effect” sustained its growth.

Companies try to spur growth in their early stages by offering “shiny, shiny things” – often celebrities – to attract attention and new users. Sometimes they resort to deals where the company pays a celebrity, artist, or public figure to post exclusive content on their social network. Musicians are often a big draw, as we see today with Instagram and TikTok, although this often fuels “generation gaps” where different age groups adopt different social networks. Ultimately, the marketing challenge for a new social network is to create a brand for itself that tells people who will be there and then delivers on that promise.

Now back to the issue of funding. Launching a new social media network – even open-source – requires a significant amount of money for initial costs and ongoing operational expenses. Twitter spent around $5.1 billion in 2021; an open source business not reliant on advertising would save huge amounts of money on sales and marketing, R&D, and operations, but it would still be a very expensive business to run. It is instructive to look at perhaps the largest open source organization: the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs Wikipedia as its core business.

According to its 2019 IRS filing, it had 291 employees; revenue of $124 million primarily from grants and contributions; and expenditures of $112 million. More than $55 million of this amount covered personnel-related expenses. By comparison, Twitter had 7,500 employees in 2021. Wikipedia doesn’t have nearly the scale and density of activity of Twitter, and yet it still requires a substantial organization with a large budget. An open source Twitter clone would require a much bigger organization and budget, probably hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Wikipedia is also informative as to the content and policy challenges a Twitter clone would face. Wikipedia has faced similar challenges in its own field, including power struggles for editorial control and accusations of spreading misinformation and political bias. Being open-source does not exempt an organization from these problems. And, ultimately, it comes down to money: the people and interests who provide the hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to run such a service will inevitably have thoughts about the political issues. Even if their influence is somehow reduced, the general public will still believe that their money corrupts the political and content decisions made.

Where does this lead us? In theory, there’s no absolute barrier to creating a new open-source Twitter-like service for those who don’t want to live under Elon Musk’s thumb. But the financial, logistical, personal and “network effect” challenges are considerable, even insurmountable. Even if a challenger overcame all of these issues, it would still have the same problem Twitter faces today: wherever it lands on its acceptable content policies, some factions will find them unacceptable, and it will have to deal with allegations of bias. , corruption and spreading false information.


The South Seattle Emerald is committed to maintaining space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing viewpoints do not negate mutual respect among community members.

The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and views of Emerald or the official policies of Emerald.


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Overview, a website providing independent information and analysis about the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears occasionally on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

📸 The featured image: Photo by Sattalat Phukkum/Shutterstock.com

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