In Twitter’s Scoble Problem, a Business Model

Twitter, our favorite tool for narcissism and the eponymously named San Francisco company behind the service may not have a business model, but it surely has the buzz. Whether it is their new round of funding or their inability to keep the service running — the blog world loves to twitter about Twitter.

After talking to some of sources, I have a theory that could help Twitter solve its scaling conundrum and also help the company make money. (I am sure there are others who are thinking along those lines.) And in order to do that, I will use fellow blogger Robert Scoble, who has over 25,000 followers, as an example.

Robert is the perfect embodiment of what is wrong with Twitter, but he also offers the best hope for the company to figure a way out of their current infrastructure-scaling conundrum. I am not picking on Scoble, but using him as an example of “extreme” user who can put any system through a major stress test. Leo Laporte is another such extreme example, and has 37,000 followers on Twitter.

First let’s start with: What is the problem? Instead of using my words, lets go with Twitter’s self-acknowledged infrastructure problems.

Twitter is, fundamentally, a messaging system. Twitter was not architected as a messaging system, however. For expediency’s sake, Twitter was built with technologies and practices that are more appropriate to a content management system.

First, I am glad to see that they are not passing the blame onto their hosting providers, like Joyent. They have recognized a fundamental problem with their service, as pointed out by Assetbar in an earlier post, who wanted to offer a proxy service for Twitter.

The way Twitter is architected, when Scoble sends out a “tweet” it is sent to 25,000 of his followers — whether they are checking it from a desktop client, a mobile phone, Chat client or on the web. The message goes into a database, which then figures out how those messages are to be delivered to each of the followers. This causes the database to behave like an overweight man who gorged on a buffet at local Chinese restaurant.

Dare Obasanjo explains how it stresses out the database in his post, and correctly points out that by giving ability to add an unlimited number of followers, Twitter might have brought all the troubles on to themselves. Facebook, on the other hand, is smart to restrict you to 5,000 friends. Why? Because to process the social graph of 5,000 friends is compute-intensive, and costly.

Anyway, to put Scoble and his Tweets in context, let’s assume for a minute that he always has 25,000 followers and he sent them 12,000 updates which are all 140 characters long, the maximum size allowed by Twitter. Again, hypothetically speaking, assuming each update is 100 bytes, then 12,000 updates generated used up 30 GB of data. (12000 updates * 100 bytes)* 25,000 = 30000000000 (30 GB)

So here we come to the good part. This massive database of followers is what Twitter should turn into a business. Twitter should charge Scoble, Leo, me, Michael Arrington and anyone else who has more than 100 friends and followers. How about something simple? $10 a month for 1,000 subscribers. 25,000 subscribers means someone like Scoble should be paying them around $250 a month.

Let’s take it a step further. Twitter should limit people to 500 free messages a month. Any more should come in a bucket of, say, 1,000 messages for $10. Businesses like Comcast that want to use the service for commercial reasons should pay for the service, and so should startups like Summize, which want to build their businesses based on Twitter’s API.

This would also fit the Freemium business model that Twitter investor Fred Wilson so loves. And at the same time, it would help Twitter overcome its abhorrence for adding advertising to the messages. I think many of us have a lot to gain from the service: My alerts about my posts on the system are a form of advertising for my work, and generate enough attention that paying for the service makes lot of sense.

There are some who are going to argue that this will kill the service. I don’t think so. First of all, average people don’t have 25,000 followers. Most have about 25-50 friends and possibly an equal number who are a degree removed but are still part of social environment. I think that for the average person Twitter will remain free. I think offering a premier-tier service will help stop abuse of the system by curbing the random following that has become rampant on the system. It will force many of us with excessive number of followers to be more selective. By doing so, Twitter is also going to help lower the noise and make the system more usable. This will give them time to figure out how they are going to become a real messaging-based company.

Will Twitter be brave enough to make such a move? Chances are, no: They are stuffed with VC dollars and signs of wild growth (including outages) can help them flip the company, making it someone else’s problem. Still, I wanted to throw it out there. It is a holiday weekend, after all!

Recommending reading:

* Dare Obasanjo on Twitter and its scaling issue.
* Hueniverse: Scaling a Microblogging Service.
* Twitter-proxy: Any Interest?