For Twitter, popularity is a double-edged sword

Twitter is the social networking service that has revolutionized the way people communicate online. Twitter allows twits (users) to send out tweets (messages) to their followers (those minions who opted to follow updates from the sender). These updates are limited to no more than 140 characters in length. Tweets can be sent via computer, cell phone, or handheld device.

Lately, Twitter has become known for its Fail Whale graphic (pictured) and accompanying message, “Twitter is over capacity. Too many tweets! Please wait a moment and try again.”

Many disgruntled users vent their frustrations by sending terse missives such as: “Someone broke twitter again – that bloody fail whale needs a harpoon!” or “Dammit the dreaded Fail Whale is rearing it’s ugly head again…what’s going on people???” And these are the nice ones…

While I consider myself an advocate of the customer with a low tolerance for service failures, I’d make an exception in Twitter’s case. Here’s why:

Twitter is evolving. It was only launched in March 2006 and, after a period of incremental growth, its usage has grown dramatically. From February 2008 to February 2009 Twitter grew 1,382 percent and currently has more than 8 million unique users in the U.S. Facebook, by comparison, grew only 228 percent over the same period. Want to read more? Here’s the post by Adam Ostrow (@adamostrow in Twitterland).

Don’t get me wrong. I too am frustrated when I see the Fail Whale. That’s to be expected. I do recognize, however, that popularity is a double-edged sword: both attractive to many and, at the same time, crowded.

Twitter is extremely popular and has been thrust into the mainstream media recently with the competition between Ashton Kutcher (@aplusk) and CNN (@cnnbrk) to see who could be the first to attract one million followers on Twitter and Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) exposing Twitter to her 20 million viewers.

And it’s crowded. Just last week I read a Sprint advertisement in the Wall Street Journal that quoted these statistics: “29,997 people just twittered on Twitter for the first time today (and) 9,002 people just twittered on Twitter for the fifth time today”

There is a restaurant consultant on Twitter named Jeffrey Summers (@JeffreySummers). He makes his living by helping restaurateurs to fill the seats in their restaurants. Most of us have a favorite restaurant and, chances are, your favorite restaurant is attractive to many others as well. Because it’s popular, it’s crowded. Just like Twitter.

You wouldn’t throw your hands up in frustration in front of the hostess at your favorite restaurant and say, “Geesh! What’s it take to get a table in this wildly popular restaurant?” You would understand the reason for the wait and probably just get a drink at the bar and relax.

So the next time you see the Fail Whale, consider the restaurant analogy. Be grateful that you’re associated with Twitter’s emerging technology with its untold potential. Be thankful for the knowledge you’ve gained (perhaps from one of @guykawasaki’s Alltop links) or music you’ve received (maybe from @sharonhayes or @DJDaveM). And be appreciative of the many relationships that you have established, both personally and professionally.

Then, if you’re still frustrated, get a drink and relax. ; )

By Steve Curtin (@enthused)

  • Absolutely! And thanks for the shout out! I am honored to be your humble servant!


  • Yes, I agree patience is the name of the game for Twitter and frankly, for most of the key social media sites with growing pains.

    We’re all right smack in the middle of this emerging cultural phenomenon…let’s show our gracious side as it all moves forward.

  • Thanks for the mention! Nice analogy and I agree with you entirely.

  • Twitter is a great tool. but, come on! Does every one have to use it? Does any one dwell on the millions of tweets which go unread. What a waste of time and resources?

    If Twitter was all that, it would shave off this monstrosity. It is not Twitter at fault. One can use the knife for menial or vicious utilities.

    ‘Time’ has no value. The herd knows that. Join the club. Be social. Life just keeps getting better.

    Now isn’t that a lie?

  • Steve,

    Thanks for your post. Insightful, positive, and well articulated.

    I also witnessed a bit of frustration over the weekend in Twitterland which is undoubtedly experiencing some growth issues. But I LOVE the Twitter experience and reap the benefits of it’s shared information and friendships. Every day.

    Like anything else, good things come while you wait. I am putting on my best patient face… and allowing Twitter to stretch its wings.


  • Twitter is definitely a value ratio application for me. As long as I continue to derive more satisfaction than irritation from it, I’ll be patient with its growing pains. Not everyone ‘gets’ it and that’s fine – that’s why there are other choices. But for me, it’s the way I prefer my social media; quick and concurrent conversations – interaction (nearly) immediately rather than strung out over emails or “walls” . The key is in using it rather than letting it use you.

  • Steve,

    Thanks for the gracious and insightful post…a couple characteristics that would allow all to better handle twitter’s growing pains.

    YOU are exactly the type of follower I choose…so I personally don’t see a lot of tweets about fail whales that aren’t accompanied with humor. Just a friendly reminder that you have free use of the unfollow button when someone’s grumbling is pouring negativity into your tweet stream…one more reason I appreciate twitter 🙂

    I’ve received so much business and personal value from twitter, that I’m choosing to hang my hat there…knowing this means fail whales, growing pains and all.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and keep up the great work!

  • Steve,

    Thanks much for putting some perspective on the Fail Whale and Twittter’s growing pains.

    It’s amazing that nothing seems fast enough for folks these days. I grew up in the days of rotary dial phones, getting up off the couch to change the channels on the TV, Volumes of World Book Encyclopedia, and vinyl LPs. I’m constantly amazed at the technology we have literally at our fingertips these days and the lightning speed at which it moves!

    I’m so grateful for the awesome people I’ve met and the incredibly useful information that they’ve shared so freely on Twitter. Seeing the Fail Whale on occasion simply gives me a chance to catch my breath! 🙂

  • Yup, aren’t we being a little to hard on the whale? Although the birds are trying really hard anyway. =P

    No matter how it turns out, just like others, I’m grateful for what twitter has got me into, and broader networking not to mention. Also, if not because of that, I won’t be seeing somebody RT-ing this post and got right in.

    Always remember the good sides of it. Eventually everything will be back to normal. See you at the snack bar. (relaxing..)

    Social Media/Blogging