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Twitter on Oprah: The Biggest Test Yet

The CEO of Twitter and celebrity users will appear on the popular talk show today.
April 17, 2009

During the past few months, Twitter has caught on in a big way. The service (which allows people to post short, 140-character updates to their friends and the world) has seen a 131 percent increase in U.S. visitors between February and March, according to ComScore. And today, the company’s CEO, Ev Williams, and movie star Ashton Kutcher will be on Oprah’s show to promote the service. The appearance shows that Twitter has truly gone mainstream, but from a technical standpoint, it will test the small startup’s stability and its implementation of an emerging programming language called Scala.

It’s a well-known fact that anything Oprah endorses turns to gold. Her show has the ability to make best sellers out of books and propel products, diets, and fashions to new heights. So the introduction of Twitter to Oprah’s fans will likely lead to a new explosion of traffic and registration, something that has historically been difficult for the 30-person startup to handle. For the first few years of its life, Twitter’s popularity grew slowly, in fits and starts. During technology conferences in Silicon Valley, for instance, it would crash due to overuse. If a user went to the site during these downtimes, she’d see the now infamous Fail Whale, indicating that the service was over capacity.

Twitter blamed the technical problems on the programming language, called Ruby on Rails, that it initially used to build the service. Over time, it became clear that the language couldn’t allow the site to scale. So Twitter turned to a relatively obscure programming language called Scala that seems to be helping the company grow. In addition, engineers have been breaking up the service into little modules that can crash independently without affecting the entire system (a task that’s produced a few more Fail Whale sightings than usual lately). Cofounder Biz Stone explains in a Q&A with Elise Ackerman of San Jose Mercury News:

What happened in the beginning is we got very popular very fast and we weren’t able to keep up with that growth. We got our act together, and we made significant progress in terms of uptime by breaking Twitter up into a whole bunch of subsystems, which means that if any one particular component goes awry, it doesn’t hurt the overall service. This week in particular, we have been working on subsystems that have yet to be completely decoupled from the overall system and that has, unfortunately, led to a revisitation of the Fail Whale.

We’ll soon know if Twitter’s modular approach and Scala implementation can withstand the onslaught of millions of Oprah fans. The show airs at 4 P.M. Eastern, when Oprah has promised her first Tweet (she already has more than 80,000 followers). Williams and Kutcher have been tweeting about their appearance on the show since yesterday and will likely continue to give updates about it throughout the day, like this one from Williams: “I forgot to pack socks. I’m going to meet Oprah wearing dirty socks.”

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