Twitter, Downtime, and Radical Transparency

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Listeners to the most recent episode of Digital Campus will know that I’m a fairly heavy user of Twitter, the weirdly addictive and hard-to-describe microblogging and messaging service. But anyone who uses the wildly popular service regularly will also know that the company’s service architecture has not scaled very well. During the last month or so, as hundreds of thousands have signed up and started “tweeting,” it has sometimes seemed like Twitter is down as often as it’s up.

Considering the volume and complexity of the information they’re serving, and the somewhat unexpectedness of the service’s popularity, I tend not to blame Twitter for its downtime. As a member of an organization that runs its own servers (with nowhere near the load of Twitter, mind you), I sympathize with Twitter’s situation. Keeping a server up is a relentless, frustrating, unpredictable, and scary task. Yet as a user of Twitter, I still get pretty annoyed when I can’t access my friends’ tweets or when one of mine disappears into the ether.

It’s clear, however, that Twitter is working very hard to rewrite its software and improve its network infrastructure. How do I know this? First, it seems like some of the problems are getting better. Second, and more important, for the last week or so, Twitter has been blogging its efforts. The Twitter main page now includes a prominent link to the Twitter Status blog, where managers and engineers post at least daily updates about the work they’re doing and the problems they’re facing. The blog also includes links to uptime statistics, developer forums, and other information sharing channels. Twitter’s main corporate blog, moreover, contains longer posts about these same issues, as well as notes on other uncomfortable matters such as users’ concerns about privacy under Twitter’s terms of service.

Often, an organization facing troubles—particularly troubles of its own making—does everything it can to hide the problem, its cause, and its efforts to fix it. Twitter has decided on a different course. Twitter seems to have realized that its very committed, very invested user base would prefer honesty and openness to obfuscation and spin. By definition, Twitter users are people who have put themselves out there on the web. Twitter’s managers and engineers have realized that those users expect nothing less of the company itself.

As a Twitter user, the company’s openness about its difficulties has made me more patient, more willing to forgive them an occasional outage or slowdown. There is a lesson in this for digital and public historians. Our audiences are similarly committed. We work very hard to make sure they feel like we’re all in this together. We should remember this when we have problems, such as our own network outages (CHNM is experiencing one right now, btw) and technical shortcomings.

We are open with our successes. We should be open with our problems as well. Our audiences and partners will reward us with their continued loyalty and (who knows?) maybe even help.

Twitter as a tool for outreach

In an earlier post I wrote about the early buzz around Omeka, both in the forums and among education, museum, public history, and library bloggers. One thing I didn’t mention—and frankly did not expect—was the buzz about Omeka on Twitter, the popular SMS-centered microblogging, won’t-get-it-till-you’ve-used-it social networking platform.

twitter.pngTwitter has been getting a lot of attention lately as a tool for use in the classroom, including an insightful blog post and front-page video segment on the Chronicle of Higher Education website by University of Texas at Dallas professor David Parry. It turns out Twitter has also been a great way to build a community around Omeka—to get in touch with possible users, to keep in touch with existing users, to give the product a personality, and to provide information and support. Among other things, we have been answering technical questions using Twitter, connecting far-flung users with Twitter, and pointing to blog posts and press coverage on Twitter. Because the barrier to participation is so low—Twitter only allows messages of 140 characters or less—people seem more willing to participate in the discussion than if it were occurring on a traditional bulletin board or even in full length blog posts. Because every posting on Twitter is necessarily short, sweet, informal, and free from grammatical constraints, I think people feel freer just to say what’s on their minds. Because Twitter asks its users to respond to a very specific and very easily answered question—”What are you doing?”—it frees them (and us) from the painstaking and time consuming work of crafting a message and lets people just tell us how they’re getting on with Omeka. And because Twitter updates can be sent and received in many different ways from almost anywhere (via text message, on the web, via instant message), the Omeka Twitter community has a very active, very present feel about it.

I’m very encouraged by all this, not just for the narrow purposes of Omeka, but for digital humanities and public history outreach in general. Interactivity, audience participation, and immediacy are longstanding values of both public history and digital humanities, and Twitter very simply and subtly facilitates them all. The experience of the last week has proved to me that we should be doing this for all future projects at CHNM, not just our software projects like Omeka and Zotero, but also for our online collecting projects like the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, our public exhibitions like the forthcoming Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives, and our education projects like the forthcoming Making the History of 1989.

For now, if you’d like to join the Omeka Twitter community, you can sign up for a Twitter account and start following Omeka. If you’re not quite ready to dive in head first, or if you just want to keep an eye on what other Omeka followers are doing, you can simply subscribe to the “Omeka and Friends” public feed. Finally, if you want to see what I’m up to as well, you can find me on Twitter at (no surprise) FoundHistory.