Twitter Connects Popular Twitter Users to Twitter Problems

Bloggers here, here, and here are discussing Twitter developer Alex Payne's recent comment that Twitter is hit the hardest when popular Twitter users "perform a number of actions in rapid succession."
The events that hit our system the hardest are generally when "popular" users - that is, users with large numbers of followers and people they're following - perform a number of actions in rapid succession. This usually results in a number of big queries that pile up in our database(s). Not running scripts to follow thousands of users at a time would be a help, but that's behavior we have to limit on our side.
Robert Scoble seems to think that Twitter is blaming him. It isn't clear that Twitter is signaling him out or anyone else. It sounds more like they were just being honest and saying this is how and where Twitter sometimes starts to become overloaded. (By the way here's a good list of several things that might really be Scoble's fault.)

While Robert Scoble does have a huge number of followers he isn't the most followed on Twitter. Leo Laporte, Kevin Rose and Barack Obama each have far more followers than Robert Scoble according to Twitterholic. Of these three Barack Obama is the only one also following a huge number of people back because his Twitter account uses auto-follow.

Farther down on the list are heavy users like Guy Kawasaki and Chris Pirillo who have about 12,000 to 13,000 followers. My Twitter is a little farther down from them with about 10,500 followers. If they are heavy users then I am too. I do tweet less often than Guy Kawasaki and Chris Pirillo and I tweet much less frequently than Robert Scoble does. I currently have 1,700 updates while Robert Scoble has over 12,000.

Whether a popular Twitter user has 1,000 or 12,000 updates Twitter should be able to handle them and whatever richochet effect they have on Twitter's service. If they can't handle something Robert Scoble or Leo Laporte have to say to their numerous followers then they won't be able to stay up the next time there is a big breaking news event either.

Twitter's Alex Payne also said that they will be adding new limits on what Twitter users can do.
Chris Kilmer and Tembrooke both ask if putting some limits on what users can do in our system would help, and they're both right. We have some limits, and we're adding more. Legitimate users should never notice them, but these new limits should help mitigate the worst case failures and attacks.
Some people are suggesting ways Twitter could try and reduce the number of tweets. Here are few methods.
  • Twitter could disable the auto-follow that is used on a number of Twit accounts. This would make these users (like @Scobleizer and @BarackObama) have to manually follow people and it would likely reduce the number of people they follow.
  • Twitter could limit the number of people someone could follow. Facebook has a limit of 5,000. Mathew Ingram notes that some people want Twitter to apply follower limits. Ryan Spoon makes the case that Twitter needs its power users. Facebook's 5,000 friend limit sounds far too low for Twitter but do people really need to follow nearly 90,000 people like one user did? While there might someday be a cap on the number of people someone can follow there should never be a limit on how many followers someone can have. It wouldn't be right to tell someone they couldn't get Barack Obama's tweets just because 30,000 other people were.
  • Twitter could try harder to stop spammers. There are some obvious adult spammers on Twitter and some that use tricky means to get people to follow links. Others come aboard and quickly follow tens of thousands of people in a few days. They could try and block the follow scripts some of these people must be using.
  • They could also look at limiting the number of tweets a person can send per day or per month. Look at this list and you will see a list of 100 Twitterers who each have sent a total of more than 25,000 tweets. Some of them have sent over 100,000 tweets.
  • Some Twitter users have also suggested paying for Twitter.
The above measures might all help reduce tweets but that doesn't mean they should be implemented. Twitter has to be careful and find ways that reduce tweets that won't upset its users. It would be best if Twitter would be able to continue to grow without any new restrictions but its obvious they have been having serious growing pains and server issues. Implementing some of these measures could give them more time to add solutions that give them greater tweet capacity. It will be interesting to see what Twitter does next.

Posted on May 30, 2008

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