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Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Twitter Fails and Internet Panic

Today, Twitter was down. Down down down. The internet nearly imploded with anxiety. Why exactly? Do we really need Twitter to get through a few hours on a Thursday morning in early August? How important is Twitter really?

 Here comes the Fail Whale

Here comes the Fail Whale

It's actually quite an intriguing question and gives us some insight into the nature of communication in our culture. Global communication culture actually. Worries and complaints filtered in from New York to Brazil to Russia to Hong Kong. Some amused and curious as to what happened. Others a bit panicy.

A favorite comment of mine on the Wired blog:

"Down in Maryland 10:43 AM, and I’m freaking out. I was about to Tweet “How do you confirm Twitter is down without Twitter?” before I realized Twitter was down….."

For every message like that, there is another one telling everyone else to get a life. Twitter is charmingly polarizing in that way. A potent drug to a large number of people, and an annoying fad to another. One thing that can't be denied though: when Twitter goes down, everyone (at least, everyone with a computer) notices.

Let's think for a moment about communication technology. Here's a ridiculously brief history:

1. The Postal System - Letters, taking weeks at times to reach the recipient.

2. Telephones - took some getting used to, but instant connections between two people.

3. Email - instant delivery, but not always instant receiving. Also limited to defined recipient groups.

4. IM - Like phones, instant connection, but again, limited recipient groups.

5. Twitter and it's kin - instant, global communication. The cyber-equivalent of shouting your message to the world where it will most likely dissolve into a haze of other shouted messages.

That's part of the beauty of it though. Being able to shout into the void, and the glorious wonder of seeing the Hive Mind of the void form as a result. That is a unique and new form of communication. Inherently global, and surprisingly useful. It isn't anything we thought we'd need or even want a couple of years ago, but technology moves faster than our desires do. Now here we are, attached to Twitter and reliant on it's servers for a previously unrealized and unnoticed need for connection.

So, on a standard Thursday morning, we hunt the web for news to explain the outage. We scour the blogs for confirmation that we are not alone. We create as best we can a Twitter without Twitter.

Pause for a second, what would have happened if a decade ago the telephone network went down completely for four or five hours? We don't actually have to wonder. Plenty of large scale phone outages have occurred in the past. As I was researching this article, I read this story about a fire at the Illinois Bell Central Office in Hinsdale, Il circa 1988 (source here). That wasn't a complete outage, but certainly was enough to cause panic amongst the public. Police were sent out in the affected area so residents without service would be able to report emergencies. Society by this point had become reliant on the phone service.

Now, I don't mean to imply that Twitter going down is something as severe as that incident. It clearly wasn't. What I mean by bringing up the comparison is to show that once we have a technology in our hands, we become reliant on it faster than we may realize. We have adjusted our lives to let that technology in, and losing it is disruptive. Look at the way Twitter was used during the Iran election. The State Department actually stepped in to request Twitter delay it's scheduled servicing in order to not disrupt usage during the upheaval.   

What is most fascinating to me to consider is, if this relatively recent technology can so quickly become indispensible to so many, what on earth will come next?

Meanwhile, visualize the panic of Twitter outages in this brilliant video from SuperNews:

Being on a Twitter kick, next time I think I'll talk about demographics and what that might mean for the future of Facebook and Twitter.