On Twitter and Vulnerability

UPDATE Aug 7: Thanks to John Sutter for mentioning and linking to me in his CNN story today rounding up perspectives on the Twitter outage.

Earlier this morning, Twitter went down for a couple of hours. I must admit: Twitter-fiend that I am, I missed it. I slept in a bit, and didn’t get online right away when I did awake. Happens sometimes (rarely).

Once I did check in with Twitter, folks were abuzz about the outage — which Twitter founder Biz Stone wrote was due to a “single, massively coordinated denial of service attack.” Ouch.

Yes, folks, Twitter is vulnerable to attack. And technical failure. Or at some point it may just become unbearable or unusable. But many people (myself included) have come to rely on this service not just for communication, but for a sense of community and connection. What happens when you can’t tweet anymore?

I’ve got some ideas…

1. In all forms of communication, shit happens.

It’s important to have a backup system, and to not freak out when your primary channels go down. Because they WILL fail, at least occasionally. Ultimately, all communications are vulnerable. Twitter used to be notoriously outage-prone, on nearly a daily basis.

Let’s give Twitter some credit: I’m on Twitter a lot — and it seems far, far more reliable lately than it was a year or so ago. I think they should get credit for improving reliability.

But all communication systems fail. Especially where we depend on technology of any kind. Hell, when you get down to it, you can lose your voice or break your writing hand or have a stroke and be unable to communicate. We are fundamentally social creatures, and when we lack our usual communication channels it’s scary.

Don’t panic. Have a backup plan, and be prepared.

2. Distributed systems reduce vulnerability

Social media is addictive. It resonates with fundamental ways that human beings function, individually and in groups — far more than traditional print or broadcast media could ever achieve.

But its Achilles heel is that the people who have come to rely on social media are at the mercy of the companies that manage those services, and on the technical reliability/vulnerability of their networks. That’s different from being hooked on e-mail, instant messaging or even text messaging — which are not entirely owned or governed or technically supported as fiefdoms the way Twitter and Facebook are. They’re harder to shut down or kill. (Not impossible, just harder.)

This is why efforts like OpenSocial and OpenID are important. They provide a less centrally beholden way of saying “I’m me and these are my friends” that won’t necessarily leave you at the mercy of a few companies. At least, not as much as is currently the case with social media. These efforts are not necessarily the best or only answer, but they’re one approach to decreasing vulnerability based on who owns or runs a communication network.

3. Save your own copy of your own contacts.

If you’re really hooked on Twitter, it’s a good idea to save a list of who your followers are, and who you’re following. I’ve heard that MyTweeple.com is one way to export your follower lists. (I’m trying to use it today, but their login process isn’t working for me right now, but some people recommend it for exporting followers. I read this review, it looks good. Its login process works via Twitter, so probably better to try it when Twitter isn’t under so much stress.)

So if Twitter dies or becomes unbearable or unusable for any reason, if you have your follower/following lists, that provides the potential to support regrouping later through grassroots or third-party efforts. Kind of like those “I’m alive” message boards that sprang up after Katrina when folks in La. lacked access to their primary communication channels.

4. Consider Friendfeed as a backup.

Friendfeed allows you to integrate in one place the content you and your contacts create on various social media services. It’s one way to maintain an alternate contact list. If you use Friendfeed, you might want to periodically recommend that your Twitter followers also follow you on Friendfeed. (Here’s my Friendfeed account)

Yes, Friendfeed is another service that’s vulnerable to attack — but it seems more stable and robust (so far) than Twitter or Facebook, and it seems an easier place to try to replicate your Twitter posse than Facebook.

…Those are just a few ideas I have to decrease how personally vulnerable individual Twitter users are to the effects of Twitter outages. What are your ideas? Care to elaborate on or refute my ideas? Please comment below.

4 thoughts on On Twitter and Vulnerability

  1. Today’s outage only heightened my interest in something that Dave Winer has been discussing, somewhat related to the OpenID/OpenSocial concepts: making Twitter like the Web — something that no corporation controls and would not be vulnerable to such attacks. A decentralized system not tied to character limits or a single Web site.

  2. Pingback: On Twitter and Vulnerability — contentious.com | Hack In The Box

  3. Greg; for something like that to happen, there needs to be two fundamental changes to the internet: (1) people need to take ownership of their data and how they allow services to connect to that data; and (2) websites need to function as brokers of social connections, not as brokers, stores, garages, and houses of social objects and their connections.

    Its very possible for this to happen, but it will take something larger than twitter/facebook falling over for people to realize and change this.

    On a technological side, its already possible to run personal web servers (mobile or otherwise), possible to use authenticated services (OpenID, Flickr’s old style of authenticating against its API, etc.), and possible for people to actually read the terms of service before signing up for these social networks. But this means changing behaviors and expectations, and last I recall, folks weren’t doing that willingly.

  4. So much for the backup plan. Friendfeed was just bought by Facebook. Hopefully someone out there is making a good replacement for FF.

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