What makes the recent outage different from past failures is that this time Twitter fell prey to a denial-of-service attack. Twitter has expanded its capacity to accommodate the normal volume of users and tweets, but there is still a maximum that it is capable of managing. An attacker can effectively shut down the site by generating so many requests that it overwhelms the servers and prevents legitimate tweets from getting through.
What is interesting is the response to Twitter being down. Does it matter? The debate about whether users should even have access to social networking sites like Twitter from corporate or government networks rages on. The Marines banned social networking for the next year and the NFL banned Twitter specifically. Many organizations are still trying to establish policies around the acceptable use of social networking on company time or using company resources.
The outcry over the Twitter outage is indicative of just how far the social network has come in terms of overall reliability, and also illustrates just how many people depend on Twitter as a source of information, or entertainment, or communication.
There is probably no business value in following the tweets of Ashton Kutcher (who, by the way, has more than 3 million followers) or Spencer Pratt, but Twitter has evolved quickly into a tool that companies rely on. It is a marketing tool. It is a public relations tool. It allows the company to engage with customers and partners in real time. While it hasn't quite achieved the status of a mission-critical application just yet, many companies are discovering Twitter as a valuable asset in their sales and marketing efforts.
Twitter will need to try and find the root cause of the denial-of-service attack, or more importantly build a more robust infrastructure with controls in place to withstand future DoS attacks. Companies will have to both determine how to manage social networking for end-users, and how to effectively leverage social networking for business purposes. Users need to figure out what to do with themselves when Twitter is down. A cursory glance suggests that many users rediscovered Facebook to fill their Twitter withdrawal.