Does the World Still Need Twitter?

Twitter users know that the service goes down fairly often, but that doesn't seem to alienate them. While Twitter has certainly had its ...
Does the World Still Need Twitter?
Written by Chris Crum
  • Twitter users know that the service goes down fairly often, but that doesn’t seem to alienate them. While Twitter has certainly had its issues with user retention in the past, it continues to grow. Last month, the site grew by nearly 10% (over the previous month) by our estimates, with total registered users estimated at 122 million. That’s not Facebook-like numbers, but it’s pretty significant. One almost has to wonder if those numbers would be higher if the "Fail Whale" didn’t make so many appearances. Twitter users, for the most part, don’t seem to mind him too much though.

    What makes you keep coming back to Twitter, despite frequent downtime? Tell us.

    The Downtime

    Frequent downtime is nothing new for Twitter. It’s been going on pretty much as long as Twitter’s been around. You would think that by now, they’d have it under control, but no such luck.

    The latest post on the Twitter status blog from just today says, "We’re currently experiencing a high rate of errors (whales) on Our infrastructure and operations engineers are responding to the incident. One from Monday night talks about site availability issues. This is a pretty common theme on the blog. June 9th…"site availability issues". June 8th…site availability issues…May 5th…"site largely unavailable. April 22nd…"elevated errors." April 20th…"high error rate." April 12th…."high error rate." April 5th…"general site outage." March 25th…"high error rate." You get the idea. This is all scattered among posts about missing tweets, missing follower counts, and other issues. And I’m pretty sure there has not been a corresponding update every time I’ve personally seen the Fail Whale.

    Is it the Features?

    Twitter continues to put out new features. Is it the increased usefulness of the service that keeps people coming back?  Most recently, they launched Twitter Places for location-sharing (a very popular phenomenon these days). This will keep that crowd coming back, although too much Foursquare could alienate others (or at least reduce some follower counts).

    Twitter Places

    Businesses are expecting more features specifically for them. Twitter bought an analytics company recently, and more business account-related goodies are expected to come. As we’ve discussed repeatedly, there are plenty of opportunities for businesses to take advantage of Twitter, but what about regular users?

    Is it the Apps?

    The Twitter ecosystem is possible because of Twitter’s API. Thanks to this, many apps have been created that make Twitter more useful to people, catering to their specific preferences. If you don’t like Twitter, you can probably find an app out there that makes you like it more.

    Is it Search?

    Twitter is probably the leading source of real-time information, which is becoming a greater factor in how people search. People search Twitter for the latest updates on topics, and they search Google, which will also bring up real-time results, heavily saturated with tweets. Is this why people keep using Twitter?

    Is it News?

    Beyond just search, Twitter provides up to the second news. It provides trending topics where users can see what is being talked about heavily at any given time. It gives users RSS-style, personalized news organization. Twitter put this kind of functionality in the mainstream, and got users reading news this way that never knew what RSS was or understood the concept – the news you care about coming right to you in one place.

    It also provides a very easy format for creating the news. If you’re on the scene, it’s easy to push out a quick tweet. Is this why people keep coming back?

    Is it the Name?

    It seems that people (at least in the media) just can’t get enough of talking about Twitter. You know you’ve heard countless mentions and sarcastic jabs at the use of "Twitter" and "tweeting" on TV news, on the radio, in the newspapers, during sporting events, late night talk shows, etc. Does the constant exposure of Twitter contribute to why people won’t put it down?

    Some Answers

    I asked a number of people why they think people keep coming back to Twitter, even though the service is frequently on the fritz. Answers vary, but they are probably all spot on.

    Starting in-house, our own Mike McDonald says, "Because at the end of the day, nobody loses any sleep over not being able to tweet. It’s something done in passing for the bulk of their user base. If it’s down, there is Facebook or 50 other ways they can broadcast some idea, and it’ll be back up at some point…Twitter is easier."

    A couple good answers came from our Facebook fans. Gary Spencer says, "It’s the funny whale picture, gotta love that."

    Fail Whale

    Tom Bill simply says, "It’s free."

    Siok Siok Tan, who’s making a documentary about Twitter (which she tells me should be done in August or September…read our intreview with her about that here) says, "Because Twitter’s main attraction isn’t its flawless technology. It is the unique catchment of people that it has managed to aggregate."

    Jason Falls, who runs Social Media Explorer, says, "Why will Twitter users tolerate downtime from the service? Because they probably need a break from it anyway."

    "Seriously, though, Twitter is a conversation place," he adds. "There’s no network or platform out there right now with as large a user base and an already established network of contacts where you can just go and chat with people. Twitter has the market on open-forum, group conversation enabling. Until there is a better option, people will put up with it."


    "To clarify the answer: Our instant messaging platforms are mostly closed and don’t allow for open/public conversation among large groups," Falls continues. "Facebook isn’t real-time enough from a user-experience perspective. The other microblogging platforms (yeah, a few still exist) don’t have YOUR network of friends already built in. And even if they did, none of them have the variety of third party apps and add-ons that Twitter does. They’ve got a monopoly on the online user’s desire to chitter chatter. Sad but true."

    Michael Gray of AtlasWebService, who is a frequent user, says, "In my opinion is has to do with where your friends are. No one likes Facebook’s crazy privacy settings and there are lots of other social networks where you have more control, but none of your friends are there. Jaiku offered a very similar service to twitter, but they where never able to get that critical mass of users. As long a Twitter has the concentration of people you want to share things with people will put up with downtime."

    Mike Stelzner, founder of, has a slightly different perspective, however. He says, "They are moving to Facebook more and more. Keeping Twitter because everyone they trust is there, but moving to FB."

    Will Google Buzz creep its way into the fold? Some think it’s on the way up, and while Google has never presented Buzz as a replacement for Twitter or Facebook, it could happen with the users’ help. It’s already got the retweet-like feature, the retweet button-like buttons, the early adopters (many of the same ones that Twitter had), and now the API to get developers creating and integrating the apps (not to mention all of the other Google properties to integrate if they so choose). What it doesn’t have is the downtime (Gmail fails every once in a while, but it is nothing like the rate of the Fail Whale).

    However, Google Buzz also doesn’t have the Oprahs and the Justin Biebers making it appealing to the masses. Sadly, this could be one of the biggest things holding it back. Time will tell if that changes.

    But for now, people seem content to stick with Twitter and cut the Fail Whale some slack. It is clear that people love Twitter (maybe we should turn to the one-word answers people gave about Twitter last year). They love it so much, they will put up with frequent downtime, and hardly think twice about it. But Twitter might want to get this under control before it’s too late, because there are alternatives out there, and this Fail Whale tolerance might not last forever.

    Do you use Twitter? We want to hear from you. What makes you keep using it despite the frequent fail whales? Comment here.

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