Should Twitter be an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet or a Vending Machine?

Om proposes one solution to the Twitter Problem is to limit followers to three square meals a day. The reasonable idea being that lower limits should mean fewer scaling problems. And as a kicker raising those limits is a good way to raise much needed revenue.

Scoble thinks users should consume without limit and will drive to another buffet if all-you-can-eat privileges are revoked. The reasonable idea being that if an internet service can't solve internet scale problems then there's not much use for it.

Dave says comp power users a top floor suite and shower them with free passes to the buffet. Let the good times roll! The reasonable idea being that power users help create popular restaurants, er, services in the first place and limiting them starves users and starved users won't come back.

So, should web services like Twitter be a buffet, a fixed eight course fine dining experience, a small plate restaurant, a family style joint, or a vending machine? Or something else entirely?

In a distant barely remembered past I actually worked at an all-you-can-eat buffet. The food was very good and most customers didn't over over indulge. If they did the place wouldn't stay in business long. But some customers did. They were called stackers.

Stackers were so named because a large stack of plates would pile up on their table throughout the meal. Stackers followed a power law distribution. Few customers at any one time were stackers, but their effect could be devastating. How devastating depended on their favorite foods...

A stacker who loved potato salad was manageable. We had plenty of potato salad and it was cheap and quick to make. No problem.  Stacking itself was not frowned upon and never discouraged. It's an all-you-can-eat buffet after all!

But if a stacker's favorite food was roast beef, that was trouble. Not only is roast beef expensive, it comes in a limited supply because it has to be prepared ahead of time. Once you ran out there was no more roast beef for the rest of the night. Good roast beef takes hours to prepare, it must be planned for. Management's job was to carefully balance projected demand against waste. The goal was to prepare enough meat to meet demand, yet not have a lot of left-overs.

Stackers blow apart the finely balanced calculation of how much roast beef to make and the carving station is left trying to push the ham while apologizing for an embarrassing lack of roast beef. An ugly ugly scene. As a carver you are armed with a long scary looking knife and you are shielded by Medieval chain-mail looking glove, but hungry customers are mean and fast. You never see it coming.

Unfortunately the distribution of stackers on any given night is unpredictable. You can't always cook a maximum amount of meat or you'll go broke. And if you make too little everyone is unhappy. It needs to be just right. As a person with serious stacker tendencies I try to remember the cost of things and keep a reasonable balance.

The only way to make Goldilocks happy and have just the right balance is to place limits. Eventually the restaurant had to limit the number of trips to the roast beef station to three a meal. Enough that you get value for your dollar, but not so much that the restaurant goes under.

Everyone happy? Of course not. The world doesn't work like that. It's all-you-can-eat some would say so I should be able to eat all I can eat ! But there are always limits. Would it be fair to back a truck up to the restaurant and start loading up because that's part of your meal? No. Is it fair to stuff your backpack with food on the way out? No. So there are always limits. The question is what are fair limits?

It has been said FriendFeed has no problems handling 10,000 friends so neither should Twitter. Now, let's imagine if I spun up 1000 EC2 servers whose only task was to add more friends to feed. Would FriendFeed limit me then? Of course. It's basic web site self-defense, a right guaranteed under the constitution and long recognized by the courts in certain situations. But still, what are fair limits? How much roast beef should you be able to eat?

Limit setting is a strategy we've talked about many times as a way of protecting sites from complete devastation. My favorite example is Mailinator whose prime directive is surviving attacks and they've deployed many clever practices in their own defense. And most every large web site on earth is busy watching your every move so they can bounce you at the first sign of DDOS Armageddon.

Limits aren't inherently bad. But limits don't make you scale, they simply stop you from unscaling. An adequate scalable infrastructure must still be put in place.

In the end I agree with Scoble in that the power of the internet is having interesting conversations with interesting people about interesting topics. For interesting conversations to happen you must be able to freely create relationships. If you or they have to pay for relationships they simply won't form. Would Google's Page Rank algorithm work so well if it could only analyze paid relationships? A web formed under a paid relationship model would look totally different and be decidedly less valuable.  Similarly, a social network that can't grow naturally through preferential attachment would have much less value.

Scaling relationships is a core social network competency. Relationships should be subject to DDOS type limits, but not limits artificially out of proportion with a user's internet audience. I doubt Twitter would disagree, but they are going through a tough time right now.

I also agree with Om. The Freemium model is a great idea and linking that to site protecting prophylactics is even better. But limiting a core competency may not be the right target. Fotolog is an example of a service that puts Freemium ideas to good use. They charge extra for adding more photos a day, more comments a day, custom profile abilities, and social status add ons. What is the equivalent in Twitter? I don't know, but I would try to treat relationships more like potato salad than roast beef.

And I also agree with Dave. It's hard to get noticed on the web. Those who help you storm the attention barrier shouldn't be punished. They should be rewarded with a tasty appropriately sized meal.