In the mid-1990s, America Online was enjoying exponential growth when it almost came a cropper. AOL's infrastructure wasn't able to support the increasing crush of new customers, and the online company soon developed an annoying habit of being offline too often.
I remember a senior company exec at the time describing how the top brass was caught off guard by the seemingly sudden avalanche of complaints and negative coverage in the press. It was as if someone flipped a switch, and AOL went from darlings to dolts. Steve Case and his management team ultimately threw a ton of money at the problem, and AOL escaped with only a bruise to its reputation. But it was a close call.
After they figure out how to, the folks at Twitter might want to revisit that history lesson. I'm not talking about the two companies' relative size and impact on the tech business. During its heyday, AOL was first among equals against rivals Prodigy, Compuserve, and something which came to be known as the Internet. With Twitter, we're talking about a very imaginative technology that's become a favorite toy of the digital commentariat.
Unfortunately for Twitter, the company's popularity made the service disruption that began Friday all the more embarrassing. The botched deployment of a new memcache project was designed to foster a more scalable service. Twitter explained the trouble today, saying that:
This process kept a minimum on service disruption but did cause Twitter to have a complex conversation with two sets of caches over the weekend and into today. This resulted in some caching issues--namely, the /home timeline cache wasn't being updated correctly for everyone.
We're aware of this, we realize that it's annoying, and we're meeting today about how to best finish up this project and clean up any remaining bugs. Thanks to everyone who checked in with us on Satisfaction, @replies, and email over the weekend. Overall, completing this memcache project is a big win that will lead to increased stability.
That didn't cut it with users who noted that it was the first public acknowledgment by Twitter after three days.
"When the whole point of the service (to post messages and make them available) isn't working, it's not just annoying, it's broken," was how one Twitter user responded on the corporate blog. Ouch.
And that was the least of it. This isn't the first time Twitter's infrastructure has failed, so people like uber-developer Dave Winer got busy figuring out workarounds. Winer was so disgusted that he began posting his updates to an RSS feed. (Smart thinking.) All the while, Twitter's distress turned into a boost for FriendFeed.
Is Twitter so addictive that we can't live without it? Don't believe the hype. I know a lot of tweet-deprived people who made it through the weekend in fine fettle. Remember what happened to Friendster? The service started to bog down and failed to recover in time. The upshot: It lost its mojo and its users defected to the likes of MySpace and Facebook.
If the company engineers iron out the glitches once and for all, Twitter likely will get another chance, and most people will forget the recent trouble. But co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams also know that online fads come and go. Like everybody else, an alternative is always lurking one click away.