When Facebook crashed
For a little over six hours on Monday, Facebook’s family of products virtually ceased to exist. Its eponymous social media platform, WhatsApp, and Instagram stopped working in what has been described as the worst outage of an internet service in terms of duration and impact. Estimates, based on the company’s reported second quarter earnings, suggest Facebook lost roughly $100 million in those hours. But that is likely to be a fraction of the damage globally. The company’s three products together have 3.5 billion active users, influencing communication and commerce at scale. When the services went down, people were left unable to communicate with colleagues and businesses lost contact with clients. Companies that use Facebook’s networks to underpin some of their own services were left in the lurch, and one of the world’s most effective advertisement machineries ground to a halt.
The company attributed the problem to a bad technical configuration of some of its servers, which set off a domino effect that eventually knocked all its platforms entirely off the internet. Reports said the outage was so sweeping that it locked Facebook’s employees out of their company mails, the office messaging applications and even from the office building as their key cards stopped working. Naturally, in terms of internet culture, people on other social media poked fun at Facebook’s predicament. At one point, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey tweeted to ask how much it would cost to buy facebook.com as website registry services automatically determined it to be free for sale.
But Monday’s outage was more than the loss and the schadenfreude it led to. It underscores the degree to which large parts of the world have come to depend on a company that is already under intense scrutiny. Facebook has faced fines and investigations for monopolistic practices and its employees have on multiple occasions blown the whistle on internal company practices that harm users and society at large. It also highlights the supranational power of Big Tech. A similarly widespread outage of, say, Google – which serves as the gateway for millions of people looking for websites every second — or Amazon Web Services — which is the world’s largest cloud computing service provider – will likely have a comparable, if not worse, impact on global commerce and communications. The Facebook outage is a reminder of the fragility of the digital ecosystem, which in past decades has seen power increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few.