Twitter's June Service: The 'Fail Whale' Mascot Is Working Overtime

If old tweets vanish, did the thought ever exist? That's the vaguely existential question I stumbled upon a few days ago while searching through archived tweets (I wanted to know just when I'd made the meal I had in a photograph). I couldn't find what I was looking for, and it now seems that everyone's historical Twitter updates -- beyond about 800, as of Monday -- have temporarily disappeared.

The old updates are slowly coming back, but they vanished as a result of a "failed enchancement of our timeline cache," according to the company. In a statement on the Twitter Blog, the company called this June's service "the worst month since last October," explaining it was making "tweaks to our system in order to provide greater stability at a time when we're facing record traffic."

That's all well and good except, as anyone who has ever asked a plumber to come by to fix a minor leak can attest, a technician performing quick fixes will often discover the whole building needs to be re-plumbed.

And so it was in the land of tweets. As Twitter made changes to keep the site stable during the World Cup onslaught and the odd California earthquake, its engineers "uncovered unexpected deeper issues and have even caused inadvertent downtime as a result of our attempts to make changes." And just like the plumber who hands you the stiff bill, Twitter has an upside: "the changes that we are making now will make Twitter much more reliable in the future."

A Glib Response Doesn't Help

The changes that need to be made could take Twitter down for relatively short periods of time (past network downtimes have been one or two hours), The site says these downtimes will be announced in advance, and they won't take place during World Cup games. That's also a change from previously announced reasons for site downtimes: "There was an error with networking equipment... What we have here is a failure to communicate...between computers. ;)"

Teehee, right? Marshall Kirkpatrick, writing for ReadWriteWeb, wasn't amused by spokeswoman Carolyn Penner's whimsy. "It was honestly causing substantial problems here at ReadWriteWeb, in terms of our research, writing and promotion," he wrote, saying he felt "awfully lonely" when the site was down.

I was suffering some of those problems, too. With any prolonged downtime, Twitter risks having users defect to other services which, despite their drawbacks, suffer fewer such glitches. Facebook is a prime example, and though a minority of vocal users avoid Facebook due to privacy and transparency concerns. But moral issues die fast when a user is pushing the "reload" button incessantly and sees nothing but that sad icon, the "fail whale."

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