How Twitter Conquered the President’s Fail Whale

The social-media site says it’s ready for the State of the Union’s traffic surge.

Twitter probably won't be crashing during the State of the Union this year.
National Journal
Laura Ryan and Alex Brown
Add to Briefcase
Laura Ryan Alex Brown
Jan. 21, 2014, 1 a.m.

Twit­ter’s “fail whale” has gone to a wa­tery grave, but the so­cial-me­dia site is prom­ising it won’t need the whale — or any re­place­ment for it — dur­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s State of the Uni­on ad­dress later this month.

In­ev­it­ably, at some point dur­ing the ad­dress, one buzz-gen­er­at­ing re­mark will lead to a spike in tweet­ing, and Wash­ing­ton’s chat­ter­ing class will be ablaze with 140-char­ac­ter missives. In the past, this might have brought out the dreaded “fail whale,” a mar­ine mam­mal ex­plain­ing that something was askew and your tweet would have to wait. This time around, that won’t hap­pen, for two reas­ons:

First, Twit­ter ban­ished that whale this sum­mer. And second, the site’s keep­ers say they can handle whatever traffic SOTU watch­ers have to throw at it.

A Time art­icle last year noted Twit­ter’s ef­forts to cut its traffic-caused out­ages, shift­ing its back-end pro­gram­ming pro­cess and sep­ar­at­ing vari­ous func­tions. Since mid-2010, the site has rarely dropped be­low 99 per­cent up­time, with no out­ages at all in most months of 2013.

That’s a far cry from 2008, when mes­sage out­ages and “fail whales” were far more com­mon­place — and plagued the on­line re­ac­tion to then-Pres­id­ent George W. Bush’s fi­nal State of the Uni­on ad­dress.

But for all the talk of pres­id­ent’s an­nu­al ad­dress be­ing “Con­gress’s Prom,” it’s worth not­ing that it’s more whim­per than bang out­side the Belt­way: Last year’s speech saw a massive jump in Twit­ter traffic from 2012 levels — tweets nearly doubled from 767,000 to 1.36 mil­lion. At its very peak, Obama’s ad­dress garnered 24,000 tweets per minute, Twit­ter said. But that’s a pit­tance when com­pared with en­ter­tain­ment and sports events. The Su­per Bowl brought in 231,000 tweets per minute dur­ing the half-hour power black­out in the second half. And even the third most-viewed TV pro­gram in his­tory couldn’t touch the scan­dal­ous VMA per­form­ance of Mi­ley Cyr­us. That topped out at 306,100 tweets per minute.

Still not im­pressed? Those U.S. Twit­ter spikes paled in com­par­is­on to the Ja­pan­ese re­run of a 1980s anime movie in Au­gust — Castle in the Sky drew an in­sane 143,199 tweets in one second.

The com­mon thread to all those high-traffic 2013 events? Zero out­ages.

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