Monday, December 28, 2009

Why we can never rest: a year in the life of Twitter

ON June 15, our technicians told me to add a note to our website, writes Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter.

The note warned users of a planned maintenance session that meant our service would be inaccessible while we carried out an overdue system upgrade.

Immediately, we began to see a reaction in the form of tweets. Then came the emails. Then came the phone calls. Even the US State Department contacted us. The message was loud and clear: Twitter cannot rest while there is unrest in Iran.

However, if this maintenance was not done quickly, our operations team feared that the service might go down for days.

With the whole team on edge, my colleague Jessica Verrilli and I called our head of operations to convince him to do what was deemed extremely difficult if not impossible — reschedule the maintenance.

A few more phone calls and we had a consensus to postpone the work despite the risk. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time we had to ask our engineers to perform the impossible. In the space of a year, user accounts had grown by a factor of 10 while our 45-strong team remained crowded into a loft space in San Francisco’s industrial SoMa district.

The work was moved and the maintenance was eventually successful. In the days that followed, our service became inextricably linked to the Iranian election protests in hundreds of media reports on television, online, and in the newspapers.

Requests to discuss the tumult flooded in from everywhere but we did not engage. We chose instead to issue a simple statement on Twitter’s blog.

While it is our job to keep the service running, it was not the appropriate time or circumstance to put ourselves into the same conversation with people who were risking their lives on the streets of Tehran. The experience remains a humbling one that would define the year for Twitter and also underscore the motivation behind a decade of effort leading up to this point.

My co-founder Evan Williams and I have spent the past 10 years developing large systems that allow people to express themselves and communicate openly. We are united in our belief that software has the ability to augment humanity in productive and meaningful ways.

Although we are already a few years into our latest collaboration, this has been the year the world took note of a simple service that has profound promise. For us, it has been a year during which we realised that no matter how sophisticated the algorithms get, no matter how many machines we add to the network, our work is not about the triumph of technology, it is about the triumph of humanity.

Many people have assumed that Twitter is just another social network, some kind of micro-blogging service, or both. It can be these things but primarily Twitter serves as a real-time information network powered by people around the world discovering what’s happening and sharing the news. The Iranian election was the most discussed issue on Twitter in the final year of a decade defined by advancements in information access.

In the new year, Twitter will begin supporting a billion search queries a day. We will be delivering several billion tweets per hour to users around the world. These are figures we did not anticipate when we founded the company in 2007.

Looking back, the year is a blur, but that one summer morning remains fixed in my memory because it is a powerful reminder of why we find it meaningful to develop technology.

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