Friday, May 30, 2008

From Chuck Bryant to Robert Scoble, something explodes

It all started with Chuck Bryant. On Thursday, May 22, Chuck asked a question in the Comments area of the Twitter Technology Blog:

Are there any user-side solutions to help balancing the load in the meantime? Like asking people to use SMS and IM rather than the website during peak times? Would privileging third-party API-based apps over the website help?

On Thursday, May 29, Alex Payne responded in a blog post:

charles asks if there's anything users can do to lighten our load. The events that hit our system the hardest are generally when "popular" users - that is, users with large numbers of followers and people they're following - perform a number of actions in rapid succession. This usually results in a number of big queries that pile up in our database(s). Not running scripts to follow thousands of users at a time would be a help, but that's behavior we have to limit on our side.

And Robert Scoble started reading (you can tell, because he shared some items on Google Reader). One of the things that he read was this Venturebeat item from MG Siegler:

Most users of Twitter will single out one person who this points to: blogger and Fast Company employee Robert Scoble.

Scoble, with his 25,000+ followers and 21,000+ people he is following is a beast on the service. I would consider myself a fairly heavy user of the service and I’ve sent 3,598 tweets (Twitter messages) — Scoble has sent 12,318. This is clearly putting a strain on the service.

When Scoble read this and shared it via Google Reader, he added an editorial comment of his own, which sparked a discussion on FriendFeed:

This is total bullshit. Why do I have 11,556 subscribers on FriendFeed, I'm FAR FAR FAR FAR more active on FriendFeed, and yet FriendFeed never has gone down on me? Also, Twitter went down at its first SXSW before I had a ton of followers there. Twitter has major problems, they still don't have a good engineering answer, and so they are blaming their most popular users. Great. We get the message. We'll go someplace where there's a good engineering team. You know, the guys who invented Gmail and Google Maps? They are the ones behind FriendFeed. See ya Twitter!

By the time he wrote a blog post about the mess, he was slightly calmer:

A business that blames its best users is one that’s in trouble. Serious trouble.

It’s so sad to watch a business make so many bad decisions like this one is doing. Right now a pretty significant part of Twitter is down. Track isn’t on. IM isn’t on. Other parts of the service are giving me tons of whale photos that say something is technically wrong. It’s so sad because I really want to use this service to keep in touch with my friends and fans and family and enemies and all that. They all were on Twitter. Now? On FriendFeed alone I now have 11,566 followers (a large percentage of which joined in past two weeks). There is a migration underway, although most people say “I really want to be on Twitter” even after trying out competitive services like Pownce, FriendFeed, and Jaiku.

Please Twitter: fix your darn problems and stop blaming your users. You now have $15,000,000 in venture. You have no excuses anymore.

OK, there's the rundown.

First question - was Chuck Bryant's original question misguided?

Forget about MG Siegler and Alex Payne for a moment, and go back to the original source. (Yes, Paul Bragdon, I still remember my Reed College education.) Let's look at Bryant's second sentence:

Like asking people to use SMS and IM rather than the website during peak times?

One way to look at Chuck's question is to say that Chucky and Al and Bizzy and Bobby and Ontie are all part of a big, happy community, and we're all just trying to help each other out. "Hey, Al, I know you're feeling stressed. How about if I just lay off the heavy activity for a while until you feel better?"

While that may work in a small group of a few buddies, it's harder to make it work when the friends number in the millions. And, as you know, Al and Bizzy did take some steps to lighten the load (a temporary halt to pagination, limitations on third party clients), but they didn't address the issue at hand.

And, of course, there's the whole question of whether Twitter is a community, or just a bunch of pipes. Ask Ariel Waldman if she thinks that Twitter is a community.

Second question - was Alex Payne talking about Robert Scoble?

There's no question that MG Siegler was singling out Robert Scoble, but again, I want to go to the original sources. (Paul Bragdon is coolio.)

Let's look at something that Alex Payne said (I can't comment on his "scripts" statement):

The events that hit our system the hardest are generally when "popular" users - that is, users with large numbers of followers and people they're following - perform a number of actions in rapid succession.

Certainly Scoble falls into the followers/followees category, but what does Twitter mean by "rapid succession"? If I were to see this quote out of the blue, I would assume use of some type of automated script that auto-posts 3600 tweets per hour. But I wonder if Twitter is really referring to a much smaller number, say 30 or 50 tweets per hour. If so, Scoble could be the target, as opposed to Barack Obama (who, as I'll note below, has more followers but issues fewer tweets).

Third question - is Robert Scoble misusing Twitter?

The above raises a question - how does one reasonably draw the line between use and misuse? 50 tweets per hour if less than 100 follow you, 30 tph for less than 1000, 10 tph otherwise?

And who should determine what appropriate use of the service is? (I'm ignoring illegal use - if Scoble were transporting illegal content via Twitter, or sending 10,000 direct messages per hour for evil purposes, that would be a different story.)

I've been directly involved in new product introductions for over 20 years, and I've obviously seen my share of new product introductions, and one thing is clear from my perspective:


I'll cite an example, Steve Jobs. You may not realize this, but Steve Jobs and I are very similar. We have both worked at multiple technology companies. We both attended Reed College. We both like some Disney movies.

And we're both stupid.

Don't believe me? When Steve was sitting under the pirate flag, planning the introduction of the Macintosh, did he sit here and say the following to himself?

This will be an insanely great platform to allow to generate professional-quality publications!, he didn't. He had his own vision and delivered a product that was completely unsuitable for professional-quality publications. (Try creating such a publication with the original applications, on an ImageWriter, and storing the results on a floppy.) But later, when the need arose, Apple was able to address this new "desktop publishing" market.

Similarly, perhaps the original "Twittr" folks only envisioned that the application would only be used to communicate among the average real-life average of 150 friends, and that we'd just be using it to talk about what we ate for lunch. And that we wouldn't bother to tell people about our afternoon snack, because that would be too much information.

But, what happened? People liked the application, and used it. A lot. To talk to a lot of people. Ignore the techies for a moment. Barack Obama doesn't send a lot of updates, but the ones that he does send go to over 34,000 people. Comcast Cares has sent out over 3,800 updates to over 1,700 people. And then you have the extremely wise personal adopters who have sent over 7,300 updates to over 500 people.

Assuming for the moment that those three examples (or at least the first two) are good, then when was the line crossed in which a person with 12,000+ updates to 25,000+ people is bad?

At this point, Twitter has two choices:
  • Support users with a large number of followers/followees who perform actions in rapid succession.

  • Don't support users with a large number of followers/followees who perform actions in rapid succession.
It will be interesting to see what choice Twitter makes.

[5:25 PM - FOLLOWUP.]

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