Posted May 15, 2009 12:52 am by with 3 comments

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So Twitter caused a bit of controversy this week as they changed their @replies feature in a way that actually effected just 3% of their users twitter-birdbut the backlash felt like they had flipped Twitter nation the bird. One couldn’t help but be reminded of the terms of service soap opera that Facebook endured in the past few months as well.

So what’s one to learn from this? Well, if you are Twitter co-founder Biz Stone you learn the ropes of blogging before you do your homework. In his post from late in the day on Thursday he talks about some of the mistakes he made in this process as well as attempts to explain the whole situation more clearly.

As for his mea culpa Stone said the following:

We screwed up from a communications perspective this week. When I heard that this change was going out, I rushed to write a blog post. This setting had both product design flaws as well as technical flaws and I did not do my homework. My post came from a product design perspective but the technical perspective was the reason it went away so quickly. Normally, I spend more time understanding the issue before explaining it on this blog but in my haste I made a mistake.

Hey, we’re all human and mistakes are made. Fortunately, the likelihood that something that is ‘screwed up’ on Twitter will have any life or death implications are pretty low. Being contrite can do wonders for one’s image. When you hold Stone up against Facebook’s Mark “Mr. Humility” Zuckerberg, Stone looks like he may be in line for sainthood.

This whole thing may be a classic case of the squeaky wheel gets the oil but one thing is made clear in the post. The old way that these replies were handled will not be coming back in its original form. The explanation why speaks to the technical burden this service put on the Twitter infrastructure.

Even though only 3% of all Twitter accounts ever changed this setting away from the default, it was causing a strain and impacting other parts of the system. Every time someone wrote a reply Twitter had to check and see what each of their followers’ reply setting was and then manifest that tweet accordingly in their timeline—this was the most expensive work the database was doing and it was causing other features to degrade which lead to SMS delays, inconsistencies in following, fluctuations in direct message counts, and more. Ideally, we would redesign and rebuild this feature but there was no time, hence the sudden deploy.

So was this feature that was being used by only 3% Twitter’s customers the cause of more frequent Fail Whale appearances? While it was not said explicitly it appears that the open ended use of ‘and more’ when describing the troubles this caused would indicate that this was a bigger problem than Twitter will let on.

So Twitter is now officially under the microscope of what is probably a very small percentage of their users that simply want Twitter the way they want it because they feel they are entitled to it because they were there first. Maybe this group needs to get over themselves a bit. If they do continue to rail against any Twitter changes we are going to at least see if Biz can top his use of the word kerfuffle in his every day business. Now that may be worth following.