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Summary:

Twitter’s downtime and reliability issues have continued to mount over the past couple of weeks, with repeated system errors and outages. All of which raises the question: Can Twitter handle its emerging status as the world’s real-time communications network, or does it need some help?

Twitter, after being relatively stable for several months, has seen its downtime and reliability issues mount over the past couple of weeks, with repeated system errors and outages. It’s blamed a flaw in its networking setup and — most recently — a failed upgrade to its timeline system, although the strain of the World Cup has also played a role. Meanwhile, users are subject to multiple messages flooding their streams, as well as missing tweets and hours of balky or non-existent updates on the network.

All of which raises the question: Can Twitter handle its emerging status as the world’s real-time communications network, or does it need help? This is not to beat up on the company, by any means, although plenty of observers have taken its recent downtime as an excuse to do just that. The reality is that Twitter is trying to do something incredibly ambitious — namely, to build what Om has called the messaging bus for the real-time web. Growing pains and problems are to be expected, but they still raise important questions about where the company goes from here. Should it become part of an open, federated system, as programming guru and RSS pioneer Dave Winer and some others have suggested?

Despite the continued cracks from non-Twitter users about it being frivolous or useless, the social network has become an important part of the way people (almost 200 million of them) communicate online in real time — and not just people, but companies and organizations as well. Police and other emergency response teams increasingly use it to alert the public of important information when there’s a crisis, and governments post public notices that not too long ago would have only ended up on a website somewhere, as they know that more people will see it.

When earthquakes and other catastrophes occur, Twitter is one of the ways that critical information gets out to the world. During the Iranian protests last year, for example, the State Department asked the company to delay upgrades that might have taken the network down, so that it could be used to get news reports out of the country (although there has since been some debate about how much of a the role the service played during those protests). In Haiti, hundreds or even thousands of journalists, emergency workers and ordinary citizens used Twitter as a critical communications system.

All of this puts a lot of pressure on the company to keep its systems up at all times — a difficult thing to do when you’re still a small company, never mind when you’re growing as quickly as Twitter has been. The company has doubled the number of employees over the past six months, and has said that it will likely double that number again by the end of this year. It has clearly been sinking some of the funding it raised last year into infrastructure and upgrades for its network, but still the service is showing the strain. Running a real-time communications network for millions of people is hard — just ask any phone company.

So then the question becomes: Can one company do what Twitter is trying to do? Could one company handle all the email in the world? If it’s as important a service as it seems to have become (or is becoming), should it be looked at as part of a larger infrastructure, the way Ethernet or TCP/IP was in the early days of the Internet, or like IMAP and POP for email? Perhaps — as Winer and others have suggested — Twitter needs to become just one large player in a distributed and federated system that connects to multiple communication channels, whether they are other services or networks, or open-source versions of Twitter such as Identi.ca or Status.net.

That might make it more difficult for the company to pursue what seems to be its intended goal of becoming a media entity, with services such as the upcoming “Promoted Tweets,” which appeal to advertisers and other commercial users. But in the long run, it would make Twitter an even more important part of the fabric of the real-time Internet, and that might be even more valuable — both for Twitter itself and for the rest of the web.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): Lessons From Twitter: How to Play Nice With Ecosystem Partners

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user World Resources Institute

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  1. Twitter is a temporary solution to real-time. They brought it into the spotlight but it is so messy and unorganised I think a lot of people can not wait for something clean and done correctly.

    Annotations or “Twannotations” (pathetic) will take them one step closer but still MILES away from proper organisation. And with their past record of failing so hard when trying to optimise things (the Retweet chaos) – I expect annotations will probably make things even more of a mess.

    But yes, we need more competition in the real-time space. Twitter is simply too annoying, and fundamentally flawed.

    Myspace brought social networking into the spotlight.
    Facebook saw their mistakes and did it right – easy. Now Myspace is redundant.
    Twitter has brought realtime into the spotlight.
    Someone will do it properly next, and I think whoever gets it right will be the company that takes the social networking crown.

  2. Does the world need one twitter?

  3. It would be quite easy to build an alternative to Twitter, of all the client developers got together…

    http://mvalente.eu/2010/05/14/twitters-kills-can-become-twitter-killers/

    – MV

    1. Why does everything think routing messages for 200 million people is “easy to build”. Sometimes people don’t give the company enough credit for what it has done.

  4. Impulse Magazine Tuesday, June 15, 2010

    I think one Twitter is more than enough and don’t need to create another one

  5. Twitter is nothing more than a novelty. Quite pathetic actually, know what really works well… TALKING TO SOMEBODY!

    WOW!

    1. …So you don’t use email? or SMS?

      When I and my colleagues/friends tweet we are talking to each other. Conversations in Twitter are just as valid, lead to business decisions, purchase decisions, social decisions just as readily as face to face dialogue.

      People said the novel would kill conversation and burnt printing presses. Then it was opera that would destroy civilisation. Then TV. Then email.

      People who deride Twitter as not valid communication are not speaking from an informed point of view. Every day 95% of email is worthless garbage. 80% of print media is disposable trash. Similar with commercial TV. So will you be turning off email, not reading any more papers and killing your TV?

      No.

      Mike

  6. Twitter’s failures in the last few days have certainly taken the sheen off it’s glorious past. The fact that there is no alternative seems to have exacerbated the problem. In other words, if there were multiple players in the field, Twitter’s failures would have not had this much of an impact.

    In any case, time for some entrepreneurial types to get working on a credible alternative for which a market clearly exists.
    http://bit.ly/bCmC3b

  7. Matthew, thanks for the reference but it was not my intention to “beat up on the company”. My post was a warning and not an attack. A warning that Twitter needs to handle the current issues (and the way it goes about resolving them) in the best way it can being sensible, open and honest or they could lose trust in the ability of the service.

    This is the perhaps the most important period for Twitter as it has finally identified its business model – it would be a disaster if, due to ongoing issues, they were not able to realise it.

    Neither we, as the user, or Twitter wants a return to the problems of last summer.

    1. I agree, Colin — perhaps “beat up on” was too strong a phrase. I think you are right that they need to work on maintaining the trust of users.

  8. TropicalGringo Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Great post. Twitter is indeed tackling a gigantic problem (1) handling all tweets 2) providing value on top of that). I think something like an Amazon hookup (partnership, acquisition, etc.) would make a lot of sense: http://social.venturebeat.com/2009/12/31/could-a-twitteramazon-partnership-be-on-the-horizon/

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  12. howard lindzon Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Twitter is ambitious, but why would anyone concede to them. The world of course needs more Twitter like communication platforms and NOW, especially in the niches whether it pulls from and pushes too twitter like stocktwits does or marvellously handles niches that need full uptime or are curated well with a passionate core group.

    Great post and getting people talking about this.

    1. Thanks, Howard.

  13. begin as stoners, what do you expect? the essential vibe never goes away

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  16. Danny Sullivan Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Do we need more than one Twitter? I think we already have two more: Google Buzz and Facebook. If Twitter can’t fix its problems, we have these other service ready and waiting. Facebook already has plenty of traction in terms of real time messaging, too.

    1. That’s a great point, Danny. Thanks for the comment.

  17. Sanjay Maharaj Wednesday, June 16, 2010

    Twitters immense success far out weighs the small minor problems it has. Thye have done an incredible job in making instant communication a utility and making it a household name. So they have had great succes and will continue to evolv einto a much better company.
    I think it will be really hard for another start up to replicate their model and gain traction

  18. Yes, world definitely needs 10 more Twitters for the same reason world needs more eBays, Googles, iPhones, consumer goods companies – competition that creates better products and services. As you mentioned in your post Twitter has a room for improvement and if starts thinking like eBay for example “We own the world so we don’t have to become better”, not only they won’t be better, the phenomenon itself (mini-blog for self promoting purpose in their case) will die out.
    I wish them all the best!

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  22. Leigh Honeywell Thursday, June 17, 2010

    Identi.ca is an implementation of the status.net software, rather than a separate project, just FYI :)

    1. Thanks, Leigh — I think I got confused because Identi.ca used to be part of Laconi.ca, and I didn’t realize that the latter at some point became Status.net.

  23. I thought there was already one? I found grind.com i think it was over the weekend. Not too sure what it’s all about but it seems to combine Twitter and the badge features of Foursquare.

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