Twitter’s ascent as a social media powerhouse continues unabated.

The next step in its rise: monetization. Twitter has to make money at some point, it has critical mass, there’s no shortage of monetization concepts floating around and Twitter management has all but admitted that 2009 is the Year of Revenue.

Yesterday, Twitter users were reminded that the fail whale is still lurking. It gobbled on user avatars, tweets and DMs and finally submerged the service for 45 minutes.

I’ve personally noticed on and off Twitter slowness lately and it’s got me thinking: if Twitter can’t slay the fail whale, will it ever be able to catch a massive haul of revenue?

To be fair to Twitter, a lot of progress has been made in reducing fail whale sightings. At one point, it looked like the fail whale was going to be a permanent fixture in the Twitterverse. But as Twitter looks to monetize, potentially meaning it’s taking money from users and/or advertisers, one has to ask if the fail whale is acceptable at all.

When you run a free service, users are often quite forgiving. That doesn’t mean they can’t leave it in droves but there’s less room for complaint, especially when you’re as loved as Twitter.

Case in point: TechCrunch’s Jason Kincaid said that Twitter’s 45 minutes of downtime was “Not too shabby“. I’ve personally cancelled hosting accounts and filed SLA claims for less downtime.

Which is the point. The minute you start charging somebody any amount, no matter how small, performance and reliability become huge issues because customers believe that performance and reliability are two of the things they’re paying for. The more you charge, the greater the expectation. That will be true for Twitter, even if we all are willing to give it an extra benefit of the doubt.

Imagine: if you were paying Twitter for premium value-added features, would you tolerate lost avatars, tweets and DMs? If you were a large advertiser on Twitter, would you be pleased to learn that your ads were not displayed as frequently as expected because the service was often slow or inaccessible? Of course not.

As Twitter enters a commercial phase, it needs to keep this in mind. Putting the fail whale on the endangered species list is not a technical priority; it is a commercial priority.

Photo credit: playerx via Flickr.