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Tweet Science

Twitter is building a machine to convert 140 characters on Barack Obama, Ashton Kutcher, narcissism, the struggle for human freedom, and Starbucks into cash—and quick, before its moment passes. Is this asking too much of even the world’s best technologists?

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OHHH MY GOD—A BIG JIANT ­SPIDER JUST CRAWLED ON MY ­PILLOW!!!!!! ARGHHHH OMG OMG OMG EWWWW OMG!!!!!!!!!!!

The tweet from Meghan McCain, the 27-year-old daughter of the senator from Arizona, bounces through a wireless network and pings around a maze of servers until it lands inside a batch of computers situated on the third floor of a seventies-era office building in San Francisco, corner of Folsom and 4th Street.

At the headquarters of Twitter, there is an open-air hive of cubicles and a large, light-filled common area where staffers in T-shirts and jeans congregate with matching silver MacBooks with bluebird logos on them. There is a five-tier cereal dispenser and several varieties of boutique coffee; communal dishes are piled in a sink. On a marker board near the exit, employees share their ideas for making the company more humane, writing “flexible” and “artful” and “be polite.”

All is not transparent, however. Floor three, the technological core of this unusual enterprise, is off-limits. A sign tells those with access to WATCH FOR TAILGATING. Behind the double doors, computer engineers, some 250 of them, Ph.D.’s from MIT and Stanford and Caltech, are busy trying to make order of the 200 million tweets a day, cascades of text messages from McCain, President Obama, and the pope; Justin Bieber and the Pakistani who heard U.S. commandos raid Osama bin Laden’s house; Kanye West and Hugo Chávez and the man who pretends to be Nick Nolte all day. Back there, in an attempt to solve the inherent paradoxes at the core of Twitter’s ambitions, computer algorithms are being developed to classify and assign values to every single tweet in the ever-chattering Rube Goldberg machine they created five years ago.

At Twitter, they like to measure human events in tweets per second, or TPS. The more tweets per second, the more impressive and important the event—Twitter as the most important measure of human history. The company started releasing this number the summer of 2009, when ­Michael Jackson died and crashed Twitter’s service under the weight of 493 TPS.

On computer monitors on floor three, they can watch TPS for an event spike like commodities on a trading desk. The freak earthquake in Virginia in August reached 5,500 TPS, a number released to the press as a significant barometer of impact: “More tweets than Osama bin Laden,” said the London Telegraph.

That compares to 5,530 TPS for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Or 6,436 TPS for the 2011 BET Awards, and 5,531 for the NBA Finals. In August, the new Twitter record was set: 8,868 TPS for Beyoncé’s performance at the MTV Video Music Awards.

“People describe Twitter as a global consciousness,” says Ryan Sarver, a fast-talking engineer who comes out of his third-floor sanctum to meet me in a conference room. Sarver, who is responsible for managing this chaotic flow, the so-called fire hose of tweets, says Twitter has only begun to take shape. “We’re in the early life cycle of what the platform is,” he says. “This is version one.”

In Silicon Valley, Twitter is already legend, one of those once-a-decade sure things, on the level of Microsoft or Apple or Google or Facebook—that not only changes the nature of the world but eventually makes it hard to remember a world in which it didn’t exist. The ambition, and some of the rhetoric, is ­Gutenberg-size, though instead of ­Bibles, there’s Beyoncé.

“There are nearly 7 billion people on this planet,” says Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder and original genius. “And we are building Twitter for all of them. They evolve, and so do we.”

Measured by the number of people who’ve joined the flock, Twitter’s growth is indeed staggering—a 370 percent surge in users since 2009. In fact, it resembles nothing so much as Google a decade ago, and everyone here, along with the small army of venture capitalists whose millions are funding this laboratory, is aware of this fact, as well as the implied competition with social-media superstars like Facebook and Zynga that are promising to go public and make lots of Valley V.C.’s very rich. Google has launched an assault with Google+, a more controlled social world, equidistant from Facebook and Twitter, and thus a possible refuge for those who are disaffected by Twitter’s chaotic news flow.

The intense pressure to convert Twitter into a profitable business, and before a tech bubble pops, is palpable here. And it’s happening as the company struggles with an interlocked set of existential questions, starting with the most basic one possible: What is Twitter? Initially, the idea was of a kind of adrenalized Facebook, with friends communicating with friends in short bursts—and indeed, Facebook rushed to borrow Twitter’s innovations so it wouldn’t be left ­behind. But as Twitter grew, it finally ­became clear to Twitter’s brain trust that the relevant analogy was not a social network but a broadcast system—the birth of a different sort of TV.


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