Twittered off: Time to grow up

Last week's monumentally scaled denial-of-service attacks -- more recently attributed to a massive attack on a Georgian professor and part of the ongoing dispute between Russia and Georgia -- once again showed just how soft Twitter's soft underbelly is. And for a service used by 44 million people last month, getting hauled to its knees by a bunch of political/cultural enemies intent on opening up a new front in a simmering regional conflict isn't exactly a sign that all's well on the security front.

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)If Twitter were a bank, the angry mobs would have already descended on Capitol Hill, pitchforks in hand, calling for someone's head. But since Twitter's just an itty-bitty message service, and since it's free, it gets a pass. It shouldn't.

Pass or not, Twitter finds itself in good company. Recent history proves just how tough it is to go viral. Susan Boyle, this year's Britain's Got Talent contestant who went from nobody to global video star after her frumpy-homebody-sings-like-an-angel audition turned non-believers into believers, could write a book about it. She hit it big, melted down under the pressure, and is now challenged to figure out where she goes from here.

Of course, few people will rise -- or fall -- as quickly as the now-forgotten Ms. Boyle. Twitter may yet join her. It may be the belle of the social networking ball after a meteoric rise in popularity, fuelled by the breathless approval of Hollywood's power elite (thank you, Ashton Kutcher) and mainstream media trying to look hip (CNN's Don Lemon, where are you?). But its inability and/or unwillingness to outgrow its gawky adolescent stage and grow some serious architecture could consign it to the social media scrap heap that's already in the process of claiming Friendster and Orkut.

Growing pains

Like the average teen, Twitter's problems stem from the fact that despite its achievements to-date and its incredible potential as the defining messaging platform of tomorrow, it is as immature as the guy running the french fry machine at the local fast food joint. Its problems stem from the following three issues:

  • It's small. The company has approximately 29 employees. The bank might like leanness, but when global growth requires robust, scalable infrastructure, it won't happen when the average elementary school classroom is larger than your head count.
  • It has no business plan. I know founder Biz Stone has repeated ad nauseum that his company doesn't need to generate cash for the foreseeable future. I know better than to question the motives of someone with a pretty solid track record in building social media networks that stick. But if Twitter ever hopes to address the size issue outlined above, it needs to generate pipelines of cash to fund its growth and maturity.
  • Its architecture is famously weak. The company's service is supported by one ISP...which reduces redundancy in the face of large-scale attacks like the one it experienced last week. Google, which is rewriting the book on Web service redundancy with distributed data centers, also came under attack. But it managed to limit the damage thanks to its sophisticated failover capability. Facebook weebled and wobbled, too, but didn't fall down, also because its basic infrastructure is stronger. If Twitter wants to continue playing in the big leagues, it needs big league infrastructure.

A checkered history

This was all true before last week's attacks, of course. For much of its history, Twitter has wrestled with spotty and inconsistent service. The Fail Whale that appears when things don't work as they should has become a defining icon of social media-era outages. When the whale became a regular thing during a period of particularly steep growth last year, alternative microblogging services like Identi.ca and Jaiku and even FriendFeed, gained traction among users frustrated with Twitter's flightiness.

But once Twitter seemingly stabilized, speculation about its future once again ceased and the alternative services slipped back into the shadows. Last week's attacks prove Twitter's problems continue, and we do ourselves a disservice by assuming it's the only viable microblogging service worth considering. While switching away from Twitter for good would be a serious hassle for users who have spent months building follower lists and gaining eminence in this virtual space, it's not unheard of for leading platforms to become ghost towns. AOL, for one, assumed its then-loyal fan base would always be loyal. History bears out how wrong this assumption can be...and in this case, was. Loyalty, especially when there's no real price tag attached, is never forever.

And if Twitter hopes to convert its present-day darling status into a sustainable business that reinforces twittering as basic a function as picking up the phone or sending an e-mail, it needs to invest big in technologies that make it as dead-reliable as the phone company has always been. There's something to be said for picking up a phone, even in the middle of a major power outage, and hearing that comforting dial tone. Modes of communication don't become ingrained in our culture until they're just as reachable -- and trusted.

It's a matter of trust

Right now, I don't trust Twitter to always get my message across. And as I consider which channels of communication I use to connect with the people who matter most, I often stop myself when I get to Twitter. I've been let down too many times to entrust my next meeting, family get together or chat with my wife to a service that doesn't seem to learn from its past mistakes.

Like the teenager with all that potential but a questionable track record, I'm holding my breath that one of these days Twitter figures out what it needs to do and sheds the gawkiness of adolescence. We all want it to grow into a finely turned out, impressive adult, but I doubt we're willing to hang around forever waiting for it to get its act together.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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