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.
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