Former Twitter chief engineer on Elon Musk's plans to revamp Twitter

Former Twitter chief engineer on Elon Musk’s plans to revamp Twitter

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk speaks during the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, DC, United States, on March 9, 2020.

Yasin Ozturk | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

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Barring a messy last-minute divorce, Elon Musk is well on his way to owning Twitter (and yes, mea culpa). The mercurial and brilliant entrepreneur dumped an estimated $ 8.5 billion worth of Tesla stock this week as he prepared to pay for his $ 44 billion side project. And soon he will be free to change the service to his liking.

Musk hasn’t come up with a full plan for Twitter yet – it may never be – but he has come up with several significant changes that are worth considering. Musk’s ideas include stretching character boundaries, open algorithm sourcing, and effectively ending content moderation. A debate rages on the latter, but everyone has compromises.

Alex Roetter, the former chief of engineering at Twitter, joined Big Technology Podcast this week to discuss Musk’s proposals, examining both feasibility and desirability. Here’s a look at the most significant potential changes, along with his comment:

Authenticate all human beings

Defeating Spam Bots

Musk hates spambots. “We will defeat spam bots or die trying!” He said last week.

Roetter likes this idea, but it’s not that simple. To defeat the spambots, he said, you’d have to build a classifier that looks for the characteristics of the robots and then banishes them. So you would adjust the classifier to be really aggressive, where you would kill the bots but also ban a bunch of human “false positives”, or to be less aggressive, where you would let some robots slip and banish fewer humans.

“I think you should do it,” Roetter said. “But everyone should be prepared, there is no perfect spam bot classifier.”

This idea is feasible, even if not perfect, and advisable.

Free speech

Allowing free speech is key to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter. “Free speech is the foundation of a functioning democracy and Twitter is the square of the digital city,” he said.

There may be technical challenges to Musk’s vision, including how that victory over spambots could ensnare human language as well, Roetter said. “I don’t really think there is an answer that will make everyone happy,” he said. However, Musk could loosen the current rules of moderation and see how things go.

This move is somewhat feasible and its opportunity is TBD.

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Making algorithms open source

To build trust in Twitter, Musk wants to open source his algorithms.

“This is a headache for me,” Roetter said. The algorithms themselves, he said, won’t tell you much. To figure out what to show you, Twitter’s ranking algorithms essentially look at billions of content samples, try to predict how you’ll react to tweets and ads, and then use those scores to optimize what to show you. “It doesn’t say that if you’re a Republican, then you’re banned,” Roetter said. “There’s just nothing like that.”

Open sourcing of algorithms is feasible and perhaps advisable, but only to debunk conspiracy theories.

Longer and more editable tweets

Musk thought about adding an edit button and the possibility of longer tweets. Both ideas are technically straightforward, although they will likely do little for everyday users who can already link tweets together and delete and resend tweets with typos.

“I don’t think it will change any of the main things that everyone is angry about,” Roetter said. “But yes, of course, why not?”

These ideas are doable and, well, it’s up to you Elon.


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