Twitter has always struggled to communicate what its use case was. Not being an IM application, or a social network in the ilk of MySpace of Facebook. It has flirted with a few concepts as to what Twitter is and what benefits a user could expect to get when using the service.
At first, it was a tool to notify your friends via SMS and the web as to what you were doing.
Twitter’s second use case was pitched to us as a service that provided access to a direct line to allow everyday people to communicate to the celebrities they admired. The publicity around Oprah Winfrey joining was a significant draw card that brought massive growth to the Twitter platform. People though were disillusioned after signing up when the celebrities they signed up to communicate with either treated the service as a one way press release syndication tool, or (simply due to the number of people tweeting them) were not able to meet the communications demands their followers were asking of them.
This lead to a re-branding of the Twitter site, to focus on the sites potential to tap into the pulse of the globe at this very moment. Changing the question posed by Twitter to users from “What are you doing” to “What’s happening” is a very important evolution in the psyche that powers the Twitter universe. Additional to this has been location based twitter trends so users can tap into the up to the minute news and hot topics from locations of interest.
This is a great step to realising the true potential of Twitter as a service. There is a problem however, which is that if Twitter is positioning itself to be the pulse of the world. That when significant events occur, the service needs to be able to handle the additional load on it’s systems that major world events can put on it.
On Wednesday 20th of Jan, an aftershock measuring 6.1 hit Haiti, almost immediately after. Twitter was unresponsive for 90 minutes, suddenly the use case of Twitter, that of connecting us to what is happening right now fell to pieces, and showed us that depending on Twitter to deliver on the use case pitched at us is not wise, and raises questions over the services long term survival if hey cannot deliver on the core of their business.
The official word is that there was a “failure” somewhere (possibly hardware) behind the outage, however it is entirely possible that the outage was triggered by the surge in tweet volume after the 6.1 aftershock. Twitter already has trimmed the number of tweets it will cache significantly for search.twitter.com results citing performance issues, so it is reasonable to assume that a considerable spike in traffic might be enough to tip Twitter over the edge.
Regardless of whether this outage was caused by a hardware fault or capacity limitations, if a service pitches itself as being the pulse of the globe as Twitter does, it simply cannot be unavailable for a significant period of time during a crisis like this.
This tells us, that in its current form, Twitter can not deliver the service required to meet their own use case to us. This undermines the brand, and until Twitter can iron out the bugs and capacity issues they face, they need to re-examine their use-case message and branding to users.