Twitter, What Are You Doing? Co-Founder Tells All

Twitter's "Fail Whale"

When Twitter crashes, users see the "fail whale." Twitter.com hide caption

itoggle caption Twitter.com

Like so many of the best ideas, the concept for Twitter.com took root among a few people toying around on the job.

Back in 2006, Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams were working at Odeo, an online audio company they had started. Stone says they couldn't get truly inspired, even by their own creation.

Soon, Williams started talking about a new notion — one that combined the best of instant messaging, text messaging and blogging. In the new scheme, people could deliver short updates from anywhere on the planet, and follow the updates of all of their friends at once.

The friends spent two weeks crunching through code, then introduced the result to their colleagues at Odeo. "They were really excited about it," Stone says. "It's simple and compelling."

Maybe too compelling. Twitter has become so popular that it crashes frequently from an overload of traffic. Behind the scenes, the growing team of developers is re-engineering the site — taking down key components for major overhauls before putting them back into place. Their work has the support of new investors like Amazon's Jeff Bezos. A columnist for Silicon Alley Insider wrote in June that Twitter could be worth a billion dollars in a year. A columnist for CNET responded that it could also be worth nothing.

The latter prognosis stems from users who are growing frustrated by repeat sightings of the "fail whale," the whimsical image Twitter posts when it goes off service. "Why doesn't Twitter stay up and running for more than a few hours at a time?" writes Twitter user @cscan. "Why isn't it stable? Is it simply scale, or is something else going on?"

No More 'Fail Whale'

The answer, Stone says, is that the site is choking on its own popularity. Parts of it, like the key "Replies" feature, weren't in the original plan for Twitter and have had to be completely re-engineered. Twitter doesn't release statistics about users, but Stone says they never mapped out the sixfold growth that the site has experienced in the past year. Nor do they have a clear idea of how to make money from the site.

"The most important thing we can do right now, and what's taking all of our focus, is accomodating the growth, trying to build a reliable utility that everyone can use around the world and depend on," Stone says. "Once we feel like we've achieved some semblance of that, then it becomes interesting to start looking at different business models and a way to make money off the service."

Some Twitter users have speculated about whether the site might sell advertising. Stone says that option isn't necessarily interesting to them, though they are experimenting with it on the Japanese version of Twitter. Charging commericial users like Zappos.com may hold more appeal, he suggests.

For now, Twitter is hiring developers and moving into bigger offices in San Francisco. Stone hopes those code writers will quickly become expert in the site's architecture, so that they'll be ready with answers when things go wrong. "Right now ... every time the situation reaches capacity, the answer becomes 'turn something off, take it down, retool it, put it back up,' " he says. "But that's a really horrible way of getting to where we need to get to. The best thing we can possibly do is get ahead of this emergency-maintenance mode."

The Culture Of Twitter

Stone tells the story of an early Twitter user who hated the service. The New York City venture capitalist complained that the updates amounted to nothing more than ridiculous minutiae that no one wanted to read. He turned his account into a diary of his trips to the bathroom — "just to put a fine point on 'this is how I believe this service is useful,' " Stone says.

Then, in mid-July, a steam pipe exploded in Midtown Manhattan. As so many Twitter users have done at disaster scenes, he posted an update noting the explosion and asking whether anyone else had heard it and knew what it was. His Twitter friends (or "followers") quickly replied with their own updates. "His first reaction, even though he claimed he didn't like it, was to reach for Twitter in an emergency and just, don't even think about, just use it."

The fast-growing Twitter is adding words to Americans' language, from "Twitterverse" — think "blogosphere" — to "tweet," which is slang for a single update. For the record, Stone says someone using Twitter is not "tweeting" but "Twittering." Now you know.

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