A user's guide to understanding the Twitpocalypse

June 14, 2009

Did your favorite third-party Twitter application begin acting strangely, or quit working altogether Friday evening? If so, don't panic, at least not yet. In case you missed it, there is an explanation.

Dead twitter bird the sign of the TwitpocalypseTwitter, the popular micro blogging service has seen a recent surge in popularity, with over 2 billion tweets sent in a little under three years. The popularity seems to have exceeded the expectation of Twitter developers, and a lack or foresight in programming techniques selected has brought us to event not unlike Y2K "millennium bug."

In the case at hand, the bug is related to the way developers chose to store the ID number assigned to each tweet. On Friday, that number exceeded 2,147,483,6471, the largest number that can be stored as the data type known as a “signed integer,” which brought on what has been dubbed the Twitpocalypse.

Based on the tweet rate last week, it was estimated the Twitpocalypse would occur Friday night. Twitter decided it was better to have it happen during the day, when all staff was available, and pushed the time up to approximately 5PM EST Friday.

Tweet from Twitter team indicating their intent to move the time of the Twitpocalypse forward.

So the Twitter team was hard at work on Friday afternoon, monitoring systems and preparing for the unexpected. TechCrunch quoted Twitter developer Doug Williams on Friday:

"Just an update, there is a lot of coordination that it takes to pull something like this off. We need the operations team to watch the servers and application. The services team to work closely with the ops folks to ensure that any problems on our end are properly tracked and fixed. And Matt is running around coordinating the entire effort.

That said, the deadline may slip a bit as we work to ensure that we’ve covered our bases, and that the engineering team is ready to react to unforeseen problems.

Doing what we can to keep the tweets flowing."

According to the Twitpocalypse website, the fatal “Tweet of the Twitpocalypse” was posted at 4:52 PM Jun 12th from web. A fitting retort to William's quote, as well as an homage to Frank Herbert's Dune saga.

The tweet of the Twitpocalypse.

While the Twitter website seems to have survived the Twitpocalypse, many popular third-party Twitter apps have reported to be affected, including Twitterrific, TweetDeck, Tweetie, beak, and Destroy Twitter.

How did we find ourselves in this mess, when we survived the Year 2K bug unscathed? Developers of third party applications did see this one coming, but there is probably a limit to how far freeware and shareware developers are willing to go to set up test environments. As much as we love Twitter, losing the use of a third-party app to read tweets is not like loosing the national power grid or air traffic control network as feared when facing with Y2K.

Icon factory is the development team behind the popular iPhone Twitter application Twitterrific (I use it myself) posted to their blog on Friday:

"We apologize for problems that iPhone and iPod touch Twitterrific users are currently experiencing due to the so-called Twitpocalypse. A fix for these issues was included in the 2.0.1 release to the App Store weeks ago, but the application is indeed returning errors at this time. Proof that it’s sometimes difficult to test for errors / conditions that happen in the future."

In case your favorite Twitter app has been affected, check with the developers to see if a patch has been prepared. If you are really desperate, you can always relay on the Twitter website. Though beware of the fail whale.


Comments

Very interesting, it’s a bit amazing to see the trickle down effect of a fail at twitter. Also the news coverage twitter and facebook receive when something like this happens is pretty unreal. I saw an msnbc segment over the weekend discussing facebook usernames and how that is going to affect the site. The analyst was suggesting that this may be the beginning of the end for facebook.