There was a time in 2008 when you couldn’t go a week or two without reading on popular high-tech blogs that Twitter was down. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington often complained about the loss of Twitter and frequently ripped the service for going down, exhorting the startup’s founders to improve the platform’s scalability.
Fast forward to 2009. Twitter, the microblog that lets users around the globe “tweet”-shout out in real time online with short messages of up to 140 characters-has become so influential that even the U.S. government is asking the company’s service to remain running 24/7.
Twitter had scheduled a key network upgrade for June 15 with its network host NTT America Enterprise Hosting Services. The upgrade was planned for Monday night in the United States, but NTT America told Twitter how important the Twitter service was playing as a real-time communication tool in Iran, which was in the midst of a fiery controversy over the presidential election.
Fans and detractors of Iranian presidential candidate Mirhossein Mousavi and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weighed in with their thoughts and feelings about the election, which many claim was rigged for Ahamdinejad. The traffic to Twitter and other sites was tremendous, but the planned downtime would have deadened daytime service in Iran on Tuesday.
So Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and his team rescheduled the maintenance for 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. PDT June 16, or 1:30 a.m. in Iran. The upgrade was a success, boosting Twitter’s much-needed network capacity. Stone later explained in a blog post:
“When we worked with our network provider yesterday to reschedule this planned maintenance, we did so because events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network. Although presumed impossible if not extremely difficult, we decided together to move the date. It made sense for Twitter and for NTT America to keep services active during this highly visible global event.“
Twitters Real-Time Service Sensation
But Stone also subtly linked to a Reuters story reporting that the U.S. State Department asked the social networking service to remain running while users all over the world posted their feelings about the Iranian elections.
Though Stone, who did not respond to e-mail requests for comment for this story, claimed the State Department did not have “access to our decision making process,” the writing was on the wall, and would certainly continue on Twitter.
This was bigger than a famous high-tech blogger grousing about an outage to one of the many Web services he is privileged to use and review. This was Uncle Sam telling Twitter it was “an important form of communication.” This was legitimization on the scale enjoyed by Google or Facebook, Web service rivals that must grudgingly share some of their eyeballs with Twitter.
Twitter, which comScore claimed logged 37.3 million visitors in May, has arrived as a crucial force for real-time communications.
Altimeter Group analyst Charlene Li told eWEEK Twitter has two major things going for it: “It’s so powerful and it’s so easy to broadcast.” Moreover, Li said Twitter’s popularity is forcing rivals social networks to offer more real-time services to compete with Twitter.
For example, Facebook this month made it easier for users to publish status updates. Li finds conversations can continue better outside of Twitter; she posts all of her tweets from Twitter into her Facebook account. Also, a slew of search startups such as Collecta, OneRiot and Topsy have entered the space, looking to capitalize on real-time communications.
“The audience is there on Twitter, but I think there will be many, many ways to be able to put out real-time status updates across multiple platforms. I can’t imagine that there would only be one,” Li said.
Ironically, she said Twitter’s frequent downtime issues will open the door for secondary and tertiary players to swoop in for Twitter’s traffic. In the land of real time, downtime, whether planned or accidental, is synonymous with failure. Facebook and the other players remain ready for the eyeballs.
What, Me Worry Over Making Money?
For now, Twitter remains comfortable with its darling status among consumers and digital fanboys. Eventually, because it exists in a competitive business world, it will have to make more money. Twitter’s co-founders, Stone, Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, have said that advertising is one of the more boring ways they can think of making money with Twitter.
There may be a way for Twitter to trade on its real-time magic in the e-commerce world. Computer maker Dell said it earned $3 million in revenue through Twitter since 2007 by posting coupons and product advisories on Twitter.
Stone fueled this fire by telling Bloomberg.com that Twitter could capitalize on its viral promotional strengths by verifying Twitter accounts so that users following Coca-Cola and other brands would know it was really Whole Foods or Coca-Cola Co. sending tweets. Twitter could also offer analytics to businesses detailing how effective their tweets are.
So Twitter may find itself reaping some respectable revenues this year from the businesses that piggy-back on it. Another option might be for Twitter to create secure Twitter accounts for enterprises that are walled off from users in the consumer sector. Salesforce.com, for example, uses Twitter as a support communications tool for its Service cloud computing solution.
Many enterprise software providers, including IBM and startups such as Socialtext, Yammer and Socialcast, incorporate their own Twitter-like status updates in their collaboration suites.
But Li cautioned that Twitter’s history of going down frequently could be a red flag for prospective enterprises considering Twitter for departmental or even companywide use.
Greg Sterling, analyst for Sterling Market Intelligence, said Twitter’s real-time nature could create problems for marketers or enterprises that rely too heavily on it. For example, if concert tickets were going to go on sale and people were going to be notified through Twitter, a disruption would cause problems. But Sterling said there probably aren’t a lot of circumstances where a disruption would cause irreparable harm.
For now, the Iranian election tweet storm remains a flashpoint of citizen journalism for Twitter, a rampant hype cycle of traffic sparked by political unrest. Sterling said the Twitter outpouring over the Iranian election may set a precedent for other organizers or citizens but doubts we’ll see something of its scale again anytime soon.
“People see Twitter as a communications tool that they want to utilize in some kind of heat-of-the-moment protest or whatever, but I think it’s unlikely that we’ll see something quite at this level,” Sterling said. “This is a historical event. I don’t think you would see the kind of pressure they got from users and Washington happening with any regularity unless it was of comparable importance.”
Indeed, to this point Twitter is better known for celebrity tweets and shenanigans, one that resulted in a lawsuit by Major League Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa. Major news happenings both serious and silly continue to propel Twitter on the Web.