Twitter was hit this week by a storm of network-rattling events. First, an upgrade to its timeline system — which keeps track of all the tweets that are sent and what time they were posted — failed, which led to missing messages and duplicated tweets. Meanwhile, network maintenance caused repeated outages. Oh yes, and it was World Cup week, which meant the social network saw a dramatic increase in traffic that piled additional strain on its systems.
Twitter has plenty of legitimate excuses for these complications and has been very transparent about owning up to them on its blog, but that doesn’t change the fact that the network has become unreliable and users — almost 200 million of them now — are not happy. The company also has to worry about how these recent complications affect its rollout of some new features, including two of the key planks in its attempt to monetize the network: Promoted Tweets and a related service it just launched, Promoted Topics. Not to mention its rapidly growing number of advertisers and corporate clients — repeated downtime is not a great way to impress them, unless Twitter wants those clients to turn to other social networks, like Facebook, who has no system problems to speak of.
To make matters worse, there’s a growing interest in open-standards versions of Twitter, either as a backstop for the network when it is down or as an alternative. While these kinds of ventures are not likely to steal the limelight from Twitter — or lure away a substantial number of its users — any time soon, the company still has to be aware of and prepared to deal with them, whether by adding features or embracing open standards that allow the network to inter-operate with other systems.
Twitter has become an integral part of the way everyone from individual users to advertisers pushing products and organizations promoting a cause communicate with one another in real-time. As I noted last week, the world also depends on Twitter for things like police updates, government updates and information on catastrophes that occur. The need for the company (or one of its competitors) to deliver a stable system 24/7 to its users is therefore imperative. If it doesn’t, others — whether an open-standard facsimile or the ever-present threat, Facebook — stand to gain a lot of ground.
Twitter can protest that many of its current problems are a result of it trying to make changes to its infrastructure in order to become more stable, but if its repeated outages and unreliability causes the company to lose the support of those commercial interests that are its future livelihood, then by the time it gets more stable, it could be too late.