Mike Isaac

Recent Posts by Mike Isaac

On Election Day 2012, Twitter Kills the Great White Fail Whale

In one pithy, three-word sentence, Twitter creative lead Doug Bowman summed up the microblogging service’s election day perfectly:

RIP Fail Whale.

Indeed, all throughout Nov. 6, that cutesy, once-ubiquitous cartoon — a symbol of a young Twitter’s infrastructure problems — was nary to be seen. The company saw record numbers of tweets flowing through the system, peaking at 327,452 tweets per minute as news orgs around the country called the race for President Obama. Despite the heavy load on the company’s servers, Twitter’s engineering team held fast.

And for a company trying to ensconce itself firmly into the online habits of billions of people, this was the best possible outcome.

You’d be forgiven if you aren’t familiar with the whale. A childlike image first created by illustrator Yiying Lu, the whale was adopted by Twitter as an error-page graphic. When the system was overloaded with too many tweets, users were greeted with the fail whale’s smiling face, a notification that the service was currently “over capacity.”

This was a mainstay of Twitter’s earlier days. Especially so during major world events, which inevitably spawned more tweets than Twitter’s infrastructure was accustomed to handling. Though the site maintained upward of 98 and 99 percent uptime on the whole, outages were glaring — and the digerati made sure to let it be known:

But, as the company has crawled out of its adolescence, the goal has been to eliminate all signs of the early instability. Twitter wants to become a mature, easy-to-use product. Akin, say, to a Facebook. Something your grandmother can use.

So, along with Jack Dorsey’s mantra of simplifying the product, keeping the service up, running and reliable has been priority number one for CEO Dick Costolo. Bare minimum, Twitter needs to always be on, no matter what. “It’s a metaphor for the entire company,” Costolo has said in previous press interviews.

It’s not just users that Costolo needs to woo. Amid a questionable financial climate for Internet companies, Twitter must prove to partners that its service can handle the strain of untold amounts of data flowing through its pipes daily, while still serving up the ad products that sponsors pay so dearly for. After all, Pepsi’s Promoted Tweet isn’t any good if the entire network is down for the count.

Though the service has proved more reliable in recent times, it has not been without its share of setbacks. Twitter went through a two-hour period of downtime this past summer, the longest continuous outage the microblogging site has experienced in more than a year. And little more than a month after this, Twitter again had serious site problems, going in and out of service for upward of a few hours.

But, as the polls closed and returns started pouring in on Tuesday evening, this wasn’t the case. It was Twitter’s watershed moment, performing as it should during the most tweeted-about political moments in the service’s six-year history.

Twitter’s struggles with infrastructure reminds me a bit of Herman Melville and his Captain Ahab. Indeed, a sea beast was the deranged captain’s ultimate undoing, never having sunk the final, fatal harpoon into Moby Dick’s pale and barnacled brow.

Perhaps, unlike Ahab, Twitter has finally put its great white whale to rest. We’ll see, come 2016.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik