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Anyone seeking proof that this year’s World Cup is the first major sporting event taking place in “realtime” need look no further than Twitter for supporting evidence.

The microblogging site, which was just a blip on the radar four years ago, has emerged as the main means of communication for fans and journalists to exchange views on matches, player performances and other World Cup-related topics. As the intensity builds in the run-up to the July 11 final, Twitter is likely to take on an increasingly important role.

Twitter’s popularity, however, has been both a blessing and a curse. The tournament has certainly raised the microblogging site’s profile, and enabled innovative ways to keep tabs on the games. CNN’s World Cup Twitter Buzz, for example, tracks in realtime how often teams and players are being mentioned in the Twitosphere. (It also graphs activity over a 24-hour period to provide perspective.) During Tuesday’s Mexico-Uruguay match, for example, Twitter Buzz was recording upwards of 700,000 tweets per minute at some points.

According to Twitter’s own blog, after Japan scored against Cameroon on June 14, a whopping 2,940 tweets per second were recorded in the 30 seconds after the goal. That’s compared to an average of 750 tweets per second and 65 million tweets per day, the company said.

Twitter is accustomed to dealing with periods of high activity. But its 190 million users are growing increasingly frustrated when they login and are met by the smiling cartoon of a blue whale — also known as the “fail whale” — informing them that Twitter is at overcapacity. The system has been down a record-breaking 8 hours and 13 minutes this month, according to Twitter-tracker Pingdom.

For its part, Twitter has said in a blog post that some of the downtime is related to deeper problems it uncovered while addressing issues created by a planned upgrade. The company was aware that the World Cup would mean additional traffic, but was taken aback by the strain its own changes would create. That, in itself, seems to beggar belief. Aware that so many people rely on it as a realtime communication tool, Twitter should have been prepared for every eventuality.

Twitter has further warned it will periodically need to take the system down to work in coming weeks to address longer-term problems, but has vowed to stay up for the World Cup and will do its best to avoid outages and errors during periods of heavy use.

Let’s hope Twitter can harpoon its “fail whale” as the World Cup edges closer to the final stages and usage continues to break records. Otherwise, the biggest “fail whale” of the World Cup may indeed be Twitter itself.

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