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Why Facebook’s Outage Mattered

On October 4, 2021, Facebook was having a real case of the Mondays. Just before 12pm EST, the world found the services that they check constantly— including Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp —suddenly non-functional.

In an internal letter to the Facebook family of companies published on October 5th, Mark Zuckerberg explained what had transpired:

The SEV that took down all our services yesterday was the worst outage we’ve had in years. We’ve spent the past 24 hours debriefing how we can strengthen our systems against this kind of failure. This was also a reminder of how much our work matters to people. The deeper concern with an outage like this isn’t how many people switch to competitive services or how much money we lose, but what it means for the people who rely on our services to communicate with loved ones, run their businesses, or support their communities.

In more technical terms, the outage was caused by configuration changes to “backbone routers”, causing data centers to be unable to communicate effectively. This not only caused a blackout for users of these platforms, but for internal Facebook communications too. Facebook employees were forced to use Zoom to communicate (sound familiar?), as well as Microsoft’s Outlook for email.

Activity on Snapchat immediately increased by 23%.

Telegram, Signal, Twitter, and TikTok also boomed. The founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, said that over 70 million users were added on Monday.

Of course, as the internet does, the memes began almost instantly when the outage hit.

What would we do with our newfound freedom? Read a book? Go on a walk?

Many turned to Twitter for their information feed. And Twitter got in on the joke: https://twitter.com/twitter/status/1445078208190291973

Jack Dorsey joked about buying Facebook as its site had a “for sale” listing at one point:https://twitter.com/jack/status/1445079948432117778?s=20

And many more.

But all this jovial banter was a lesson in privilege for the developed world. And the reason is demonstrated in this map…

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That’s right, the number one way that people communicate worldwide outside of SMS is WhatsApp. In fact, many people don’t use SMS at all due to cost or carrier availability, but just the Facebook owned software. As of July 2021, two billion users access WhatsApp on a monthly basis. What’s more, Facebook pages in developing countries are often the only online presence that businesses have. Losing these methods of communication wasn’t just an inconvenience, it was catastrophic. So while in the US or Europe we could just hop on another platform, that wasn’t the case in places like Colombia where 92% of internet users use WhatsApp, or in Kenya, where a staggering 97% of internet users rely on the service.

So what can we learn from the outage? I am not taking the opinion, although some are, that Facebook has too much power or control. We give it all the power it has over us.

WhatsApp is efficient and easy to use, and incredibly valuable to a lot of users. Facebook acquiring it made sense. However, it is an argument in the plus column for having a variety of cheap or free messaging devices available to the world. Signal is one such option, as is Discord. This is also a message to advertisers who predominately rely on Facebook and Instagram for ad delivery.

A blackout means paused ad spend and lost revenue for businesses depending on traffic, and this is why diversification of advertising/ marketing initiatives is vital for any company. Also, self awareness goes far!  Look at the list of huge brands that replied to the viral Twitter “Hello literally everyone” tweet. They may have lost their ability to post on FB or Instagram, but brands could stay front and center until service was restored.

And on a personal note, although it lasted only 6 hours, the pause in Facebook services was a nice reminder that outside of our business obligations, we should social media because we want to, not have to. And even though the tether to social networks is powerful, we can take a break whenever we like, no outage necessary.

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