He’s better with a trowel than he is with technology. His digital dramas are frequent and usually blow over quickly, when one of the teenagers sorts out whatever the problem is in seconds. I joked that all his well-wishers had broken the internet with their birthday greetings. I was nearer the truth than I imagined.
On cue, Jack strolled into the kitchen. “Don’t worry about your Facebook page,” he said. “The whole thing has crashed. And Instagram. And WhatsApp.”
And so it began. Six hours in which most of the social media world – I was straight onto Twitter, where ‘Facebookdown’ was already trending – went offline.
Facebook eventually said the issue was caused by a fault in the underlying internet infrastructure co-ordinating the internet traffic between its data centres. This fault interrupted that communication and caused a “cascading effect” on the way all its data centres communicate, bringing services crashing down like dominoes.
“It was as if someone had ‘pulled the cables’ from their data centres all at once and disconnected them from the internet,” concluded Cloudflare, a company which helps to manage and control internet traffic.
Over in California, at the HQ of Mark Zuckerberg’s internet empire which has a market value of $920bn, internal tools and communication platforms were also down. Staff couldn’t send emails, use company mobile phones or in some cases, even get through the door with their passes.
We will probably never find out exactly what happened and how it was fixed. What is of direct concern, however, is the massive impact this sudden curtailment of social media had on people who rely on social media for information, government advice and business.
If you thought that Facebook was all about people sharing pictures of their cats doing silly things, and Instagram simply an outlet for fame-seeking ego-maniacs showing off their homes/holidays/perfect lives, let this outage stand as a reminder that social media has become far, far bigger than the sum of its parts.
In Tanzania, for instance, it’s reported that the government was forced to appeal for calm. Sudden shutdowns of social media sites is a common tactic in authoritarian African states during election campaigns or periods of civil unrest. Panic and rumours spread immediately throughout the country.
In Hungary, the opposition said that the shutdown had effectively robbed it of its democratic right to free expression in a country where most of the mainstream media is under the sway of Viktor Orban’s right-wing government.
Campaigners for the rights of women and girls quickly took the opportunity to point out that, for six hours on Monday, the female sex was largely free of online harassment from predatory males.
And whilst the outage cost Facebook an estimated $100m in lost online advertising revenue, quite possibly millions of smaller businesses across the globe were counting the cost of lost trading.
Whilst Mr Zuckerberg’s firm suffered a minor drop in its ocean of wealth, other firms were left high and dry. Whilst creative and visual businesses rely on Instagram as a shop window, Facebook in particular now provides a direct link between businesses and their customers. For smaller companies and entrepreneurs it is probably the main source of income-generation.
And during subsequent lockdowns, I’d argue that we have all become a lot more comfortable with doing business this way, especially if we can pay for goods and services using secure payment methods such as PayPal.
Indeed, last weekend I organised my husband’s actual birthday party for 50-odd people entirely through Facebook and Messenger. Apart from a quick in-person recce of the venue, I organised everything without leaving the house.
Far from being a frivolous indulgence, social media has become an important tool of modern commerce – and which is why a major outage cannot be overlooked.
The very least we should expect is for Mr Zuckerberg, with all that technology and money at his disposal, to devise a back-up system, and to remind ourselves never to take social media for granted again. It’s far more powerful than we ever thought.
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