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- At a Microsoft event on Monday, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman called the site “by far the most valuable social network that’s ever been built.”
- Currently, over 40 million developers use GitHub to share and contribute to open source projects, and the company is aiming for 100 million by 2025. That’s far behind Facebook or Twitter — but Friedman says that he looks at the definition of “value” differently.
- Friedman says that GitHub developers are responsible for the software that powers much of the rest of the internet economy, especially thanks to its status as the center of the open source software world.
- “If you look at the positive externalities of the open source and free software that’s been created and the way that it powers every cloud, every device, it’s hard to argue with that,” Friedman says.
- Microsoft acquired GitHub for $7.5 billion in 2018.
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GitHub CEO Nat Friedman says that the service, which Microsoft acquired for $7.5 billion in 2018, is “the most valuable social network that’s ever been built.”
Friedman’s comments came at a Microsoft media event on Monday.
At first blush, that claim doesn’t seem to hold water: At last count, GitHub had over 40 million developers registered on the site, which allows users to share and collaborate on their code. That’s a lot, but it’s still dwarfed by Facebook’s 2.45 billion users or Twitter’s 330 million users.
Friedman, however, has a different way of looking at things. To his mind, GitHub’s real value is the fact that it’s the center of the open source community, where programmers create or contribute code to projects that anybody can view, modify, or download for free.
“One of the things I like to say is that as measured by the value it’s created, GitHub is by far the most valuable social network that’s ever been built, right?” Friedman said. “If you look at the positive externalities of the open source and free software that’s been created and the way that it powers every cloud, every device, it’s hard to argue with that.”
Since its acquisition, GitHub has only continued growing in popularity, especially internationally, and said that it’s targeting a goal of 100 million developers by 2025. The company has been allowed to operate largely independently of its parent company Microsoft. At the same time, it has also faced controversy over its work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has sometimes reached Microsoft itself.
In some ways, GitHub is similar to other social networks online, Friedman said. But it differs in the sense that they’re gathered around a specific task: the creation of vital, useful software.
“It’s a website where strangers meet to create something of value and to build something that’s useful in the world,” Friedman said. “They’ve put it into a kind of a global commons, so it’s quite amazing.”
The open source boom
Friedman highlights that members of the open source community don’t always represent an employer; often, they’re just contributing code for the fun of it, the challenge involved, or any number of other reasons.
“This is obviously something going on where there are more developers actually showing up, actually engaging with code, actually contributing, than we know,” Friedman said. “There’s this sort of invisible mass of developers out there doing work.”
The code that they create, however, is very serious business. For example, the Linux operating system, probably the most famous piece of open source software in the world, now powers most of the servers and data centers that underpin the internet as we know it. As programmers become only more vital to the functioning of the global economy, so too does the demand for open source software increase.
Indeed, while 25 years ago, open source was just an “offshoot of academic activity,” now it has become the “dominant paradigm” for how people develop software, Friedman says.
“Every digital product you buy, just nearly every physical product and every website or app you interact with is powered by open source,” Friedman said.
GitHub at the center
GitHub is the center of the open source movement, as the place where contributors gather around prominent projects like the Google-created Kubernetes, the Facebook-sponsored project React, and even Apple’s Swift programming language — among a litany of other independently-created open source projects. Microsoft itself uses it to house Visual Studio Code, its very popular code editor.
Thomas Murphy, senior director analyst at Gartner, agrees that from a coding perspective, the impact GitHub has is “tremendous” because of how much the world relies so much on software.
“When you look at social networks and how big they are, I think that the concept of, look at the influence they have because of how much the Internet has been built through social coding networks, there certainly has been a tremendous impact on the world we normally deal with everyday,” Murphy told Business Insider.
Nicholas Carlson contributed reporting to this story.
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