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Twitter: Too Much Fail for One Little Whale

If you’ve ever been on Twitter — even occasionally — chances are you’ve seen it.

You probably already know what I’m talking about, right? I don’t even have to mention it by name, but I will, because if I just stopped right here this would be a heck of a short post.

It’s the infamous fail whale; the cute little caricature that pops up when Twitter is over capacity. It’s really quite an adorable image for something so frustrating.

Which is probably the point, right? “Give the masses a cute little whale! That’ll make them feel better!” This is why the brains behind Twitter have gotten so far, folks.

I tried to log in today and I got the whale. I tried again, later, and I got a monkey robot thing that apparently materializes when something is “technically wrong.” Monkey robot hasn’t quite won the hearts and minds of legions of users yet, but give it time. Maybe it will even get its own special alliterative moniker.

“Maddening Monkey.” “Ruin Robot.” No? I’ll keep working on it.

Here’s the thing, though: why should users have to see these screens as much as they do?

In Twitter’s early days, outages made sense. It was growing by leaps and bounds — a staggering 1,382% between 2008 and 2009 — and constantly straining at the edge of its own limitations.

But now Twitter’s all grown up. Growth has slowed but it’s settled nicely into its slot as a very popular, very robust middleweight champion of a social media platform with lots of engagement.

So, why is it still breaking?

Some social media experts argue that users are so used to riding out Twitter hiccups that it doesn’t even phase them. I’d agree with that. I’m certainly never surprised to see Twitter down, that’s for sure. And I can understand data center failures here and there — Twitter can’t really control that.

But the over-capacity thing just doesn’t fly anymore. Facebook — at roughly one billion users, the #1 most heavily-used social platform in the world — occasionally experiences glitches, but when was the last time it was totally down for the count? I can’t even remember! And yet over at Twitter, which currently clocks in around only half a million users, the robot monkey and whale continue to cheerfully greet folks on a regular basis.

Point being: they’ve had nearly five years to gather data about tweet volume. They’ve had nearly five years to analyze and optimize the system. It shouldn’t have to be this way.

There’s a joke that Facebook usage goes up when Twitter goes down. At what point will users start wandering off to other social media platforms — and stay there?

Only time will tell.

Did you know?

Fun fact of the day: The woman behind the whale is Yiying Lu, an illustrator who created the graphic as a greeting for a friend. She then put it for sale on a stock photo site, where the Twitter team discovered it — and the rest, they say is history. Originally titled “Lifting a Dreamer,” Lu is disappointed that her drawing became widely associated with failure, but is happy with the doors it has opened in her career.

What’s your take on the whale? How about the monkey robot, for that matter?

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