Twitter’s Reliability An Issue For Government


Twitter’s has had major reliability issues this week.

The site was over capacity and displaying the “Fail Whale” image numerous times. The capacity issue resulted in site breakdowns, slowdowns, loss of tweets, and more. In fairness, Twitter has been transparent (in true social media culture fashion) about the scaling issues coming from exponential growth. Co-founder Biz Stone was quoted in CNNMoney saying that they have had “a lot of growing pains”.

But apparently its not an easy fix. Mashable’s Ben Parr stated, “To fix the issue, Twitter will likely take the service down during the next two weeks to make repairs and perform maintenance. The time frame — two weeks — makes us think that these issues aren’t simple fixes. Expect the high rate of errors and unexpected downtime to continue for a while longer.”

Part of those growing pains appear to be Twitter’s interaction with the Government. Earlier this month Twitter announced it was searching for its first government liaison. What’s apparent by the announcement is that Twitter doesn’t seem to have a government engagement strategy. The job description has no focus in either service or target audience. It ranges from interacting with candidates (campaigns) to policy makers (governing). As any public policy wonk knows, those are two entirely different worlds with different needs, even if some of the same people – namely candidates – cross over.

Twitter is evidently hoping the right leader will develop a strategy, but that’s a hiring-dependent approach — which is risky. One candidate stated he’d help Twitter develop a government-only version of the platform to operate behind a firewall. Doesn’t that seem ironic for a social medium that’s supposed to engage a wide audience? This is why the ‘hire the right candidate as our strategy’ approach is pot luck at best.

One valid response was Mark Drapeau‘s, Director of Innovative Social Engagement at Microsoft U.S. Public Sector who said in Washington Technology, “If I were Twitter, I’d get a better feel for Washington, and then rewrite and advertise this six months from now.” Or in other words, come back with a plan.

But there’s no time to come back with a plan. The proverbial horse has left the barn. Twitter has already been adopted by forward-thinking federal workers and therefore the company needs to be engaged with the Government now. And by engagement we mean in a meaningful, integrated manner at the functional level. That requires a staff and top tier focus, not a field office with a guy and a desk.

Twitter is being used to convey emergency related information – Red Cross Example Above.

Among its uses, Twitter has been deployed by public officials in emergency situations to supply critical information. We can easily see more of this in the future. Think of NOAA or the EPA and the oil spill cleanup, the Forest Service searching for a lost hiker, TSA with an airport incident, and the list goes on. That’s before we even get to local governments which evidently Twitter has hopes this candidate will also engage. That’s a whale of a job (and yes, the pun was intended).

Twitter needs to help the Government understand its realistic capabilities and limits. This week’s outage provided a surprise insight into its current limits when it hit over capacity on Tuesday. And that’s not a surprise any public leader wants to have – particularly in an emergency.

John Theriault
Revolution Associates

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Adriel Hampton

Great commentary, John. I’ve been thinking more and more that gov’ts need to look at how Web 2.0 features can be integrated into their own service offerings, not relying too heavily on Web 2.0 companies to carry gov’t messages. However, Twitter is more difficult as it can be seen as a reliable messaging service, including sms capabilities. One thing that may need to happen for reliable gov use of Twitter is carving out priority signals for emergency messages, which others have discussed.

John Theriault


Thanks for your comment, Adriel. The idea of an ’emergency bandwidth’ for a twitter like service is a really interesting one. As Twitter takes off, it will be interesting to see more niche versions be developed.

Mark Headd


With all due respect, any competent public official (particularly one responsible for emergency notifications) that is surprised by downtime at Twitter might want to consider another line of work.

Twitter is appropriately looked at as a communication channel like phone, SMS, IM, e-mail, etc. The networks that support these channels – even the public switched telephone network (PSTN), which has existed for decades and been fortified by billions of dollars of investment – are not immune to downtime.

Look at what Hurricane Katrina did to the PSTN network in the gulf – it wiped it out. Look at what the Obama inaugural (almost) did to the cell network in DC. Examples of this abound…

I agree that Twitter’s recent instability offers an opportunity to highlight its capabilities and limits, but the better lesson here for emergency officials and policy makers is that any emergency notification strategy built around (or overly reliant on) one channel is probably going to fail at some point.

The better takeaway from this is that no communication channel is immune to disruption, and that well crafted notification systems are designed to work across a myriad of channels. The best defense against disruptions on any single channel is the use of multiple channels to get emergency information to citizens and others that need it.

Paul Day

I argue it’s the other way around. The government is not reliable enough for Twitter. I mean, we can’t clean up an oil spill, fix the economy, expand broadband access. What are we doing? We have nothing to tweet about…

Visit my blog, Conversion-Driven Government.

Paul Villano

We’re discussing this issue on the Content-Managers list and this is a copy of what I posted there in response.

The issue with Twitter (or any Social Media) and the Government is not the tool but the rules. I was dragged kicking and screaming into acknowledging that Social Media is a benefit to Government, especially in my realm of Knowledge Management. I was afraid for security reasons as you will see from some of my earlier postings to this list.

But I’ve come to see it as similar to a parent teaching a teenager to drive. While the risks are terrifying the benefits of mitigating the risks as best you can overwhelm even the terror and you understand the teen (in this case the Government) will benefit more from what is learned and experienced (the knowledge available from those outside of government that can bring new perspectives and new ideas, the only means of innovation) than from shutting down and closing off.

Having said that, after a week of being up, our knowledge management sites have little interaction because of the rules placed on government. We must make “fan” pages for Facebook, not regular profiles. The rules are convoluted and Facebook may pull them at any time. And there are problems with Twitter as well.

Any large entity, including the Government, will struggle with traffic flow, crowdsourcing, and just not knowing what the limits will be in the ebb and flow of human exchange (look at AT&T and Apple this past week). But the benefit of getting the Government on the road of Social Media, even if it gets stuck in a traffic jam , and realizing you just need a wider road or different route far outweighs the thinking that they have no business being on the road at all.

John Theriault


I was dragged kicking and screaming into social media too… coming out of an intelligence background. I had to be convinced to put information on LinkedIn and GovLoop. But now I’m a convert… primarily because I think organizations will need to adapt regardless if we’re on board or not. I’d rather help lead than follow.

By the way, the site http://socialmediagovernance.com/ by Chris Bourdeaux has an excellent inventory social media policies from various organizations. IBM’s is there, which is considered a good one in the industry.

Sara Estes Cohen

@markheadd – completely agree. No communication channel is a failsafe on its own. To leverage social media, specifically in emergency management/response, many channels must be used. The infrastructure supporting all communications (including SMS/email/websites, fax, etc.) is not robust enough to maintain communication throughout an event due to the sheer activity that occurs. Many channels are necessary to ensure the message is received.

I believe social media is often seen as a quick fix, a catch-all solution; however, if not combined with traditional communications channels, strategy, management/implementation plans, flexibility, and EDUCATION, it will not be successful. The most important message here is that “social media is PART of an organization’s crisis/emergency communciations toolbox, not a replacement or single-purposed fix.”

Mark D. Drapeau

Great post, John. People can say what they want, but I haven’t really seen good arguments countering the following: (1) Twitter’s persistent, often unexplained downtime is beneath government expectations for virtually every piece of software and other goods used, and (2) Twitter’s government-liasion job description is vague and somewhat naive, mashing up everything from technology to policy, tactical and strategic, and politics and government.

Steve Radick

Mark – those are some great points, and ones that I think we’re going to see more and more of. Just like we get peeved when the soccer fans from other countries shrug off referee mistakes and say, “that’s how soccer is,” and we, as Americans, keep hemming and hawing about fixing these mistakes, we have to soon start facing the reality that the same thing is happening to Twitter. Saying, “aw – that’s just the way Twitter is,” isn’t going to cut it anymore.

There’s got to be some sort of service level agreement that Twitter steps out and makes with its users, with the public, with the government that says, “we will be up 99.9999% of the time. Maintenance will be done at X time, etc.”