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October 06, 2010

Congratulations Foursquare on Well-Deserved Downtime

Over the last two days, the popular location based service and king of check-ins, Foursquare, has been suffering from intermittent outages related to database overload and storage troubles. And this is wonderful news. Not because I wish them ill will, but it seems this is a necessary strain practically all successful companies go through at some point as they achieve rapid user growth. How users react to what are hopefully temporary bumps, and how the service reacts after the fact can help determine if the company will continue to be embraced, like a Twitter, or dumped, like a Technorati.

Foursquare's rise from its SXSW 2009 debut to near pervasiveness among the digerati, becoming synonymous with the location check-in movement, despite big players like Facebook and Google participating, and more direct competition like Gowalla and Mytown, is a testament to the service's viral nature, including game mechanics, close ties to friending and following, and a casual attitude that eliminated the dark feeling of insecurity many people once had about announcing their locations, and replacing it with something one not just accepts, but expects.

Downtime Hits All Folks, Even Facebook (from Tonight)

Foursquare seems to be in the position to choose their own destiny - to forge ahead as an independent company, flush with cash from a summer VC round, or to court willing suitors at a later date, hopefully at a higher valuation than deals they famously turned down in a public negotiation for control. While two days of shakiness are no doubt unwelcome by the company or its addicted userbase, it seems a rite of passage that the biggest Web services go through in a circuitous route to the top.

Twitter is by far the most famous for continued bouts with downtime, closely tied to scalability issues, and its fail whale mascot is the icon of downtime that all other interruption pages wish to be when they grow up. The company's status blog at http://status.twitter.com/ has actually seen 15 different posts since September 1st, contrasted with only 10 posts from the company's official blog. (http://blog.twitter.com/)

But the blue bird and white whale on a teal background are not the first to document downtime doom. Amazon Web Services promotes a service health dashboard, while Salesforce.com displays a system status at Trust.Salesforce.com. Google provides a status dashboard for Google Apps, with dedicated pages for Blogger status and Feedburner status and others. Even pokey old Web 1.0 dinosaur Hotmail has a status dashboard.

Common to all these services? Previous downtime issues that hit the community hard. Truth is, until there is a major downtime incident, most companies do not offer insight into their status. They may feel like they are teflon, and they can't be taken down, or they simply didn't think about what could happen if something went wrong. It takes a public shakeup that calls the service's stability and viability into question to push for improved system integrity and redundancy, and despite best efforts, some never quite solve the problem.

Back in 2007 and 2008, Technorati was as much known for its Technorat Monster escaping as anything else. This cutesy downtime message foretold the demise of the service, which had to strip out much of its functionality simply to stay up, and was pretty much abandoned by all but a core of users who watched the company evolve its business model and reduce their technical demands. And so far as I know, Technorati never launched a status page. They didn't do what the many other successful companies (above) did when push came to crash. Foursquare, it looks like, is working hard to push this recent event and will come out of this stronger because they are following the proven path - of ownership, late hours, and public transparency.

Tonight may suck for the company's employees, who are taking a public flogging that cans of Red Bull and pizza won't fix. But they should wear the fatigue as a badge of pride. In time, they could look back at this week's events with warm and fuzzy feelings, remembering the outage, which resulted from "too many checkins", as a clear tell they were graduating from Web curiosity to Web titan.