Twitter temporarily knocked out

Twitter, the social network built around short text messages, was shut down for several hours Thursday by an apparently deliberate automated deluge of messages that overwhelmed its system.

“On this otherwise happy Thursday morning, Twitter is the target of a denial of service attack,” company co-founder Biz Stone confirmed on the company’s official blog.

“Attacks such as this are malicious efforts orchestrated to disrupt and make unavailable services such as online banks, credit-card payment gateways, and in this case, Twitter for intended customers or users,” Stone added. “We are defending against this attack now and will continue to update our status blog as we continue to defend and later investigate.”

The precise nature of the attack was not clear, but such disruptions are increasingly caused by malware that enables multiple computers to engage in a “distributed denial of service” (DDoS) attack. Attacks from multiple computers are more difficult to shutdown and more difficult to investigate.

“It is not known at this time if malware is involved in carrying out this attack, essentially causing computers worldwide to aid in the attack,” the computer security firm Symantec said. But the firm encouraged computer users to update security software as a precaution.

About two hours after the shutdown, Twitter partially restored service but warned that delays would persist. “We’re working to get back to 100 percent as quickly as we can,” the San Francisco-based company said, warning that some business customers will continue to be affected.

Facebook also reported some troubles on its site, but did not experience a shutdown.

Inevitably, the terms “DDoS” and “denial-of-service” quickly emerged as the top “trending topics” on Twitter and reverberated among the digerati.

“Oooh, dramatic!” declared Mike Arrington at TechCrunch. “That’s way more exciting than run of the mill outages that have plagued the site since forever.”

Caroline McCarthy of CNet News concurred in her column, The Social: “Way back when, Twitter outages were so commonplace that it was worth reporting when it didn’t crash ? as when it stayed afloat during the entire South by Southwest Interactive Festival in 2008. Now, a few million dollars of venture capital later, the service is far more stable.”

She added: “Twitter wants to establish itself as a communications standard rather than just a social-media brand. It’s been a crucial platform for information exchange in the face of global events where more traditional means of broadcasting have been inaccessible or blocked.”

The Twitter Trends of the Day blogger noted that “other sites, not as big as Twitter, have suffered similar attacks in the last few weeks.”

Many Twitter users may not have noticed the shutdown. Some may have welcomed the respite.

But for some others, oh, the humanity. Allison Koski, a public relations manager in New York, was quoted in the Huffington Post as saying she felt “completely lost” without Twitter. “I had to Google search Twitter to find out what was going on, when normally my Twitter feed gives me all the breaking news I need.”

(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.