When the lights went out at Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp on October 4th, 2021, half of my Twitter feed seemed to be taking the piss out of the fact that Mark Zuckerberg’s employees weren’t able to even access their buildings, while the other half was showing some degree of concern for the hundreds of millions of livelihoods harmed by the incident.
Some said we, the folks who make technology, had failed to build viable alternatives.
Some tried to make a case for a decentralised web.
Some pointed out Facebook was the only way for millions of families to stay in touch with their loved ones.
And some suggested this would be a good time to start blogging, as if anyone who didn’t have a blog ten years ago knew what that is.
Gatekeepers of the web
If you live in a region with decent infrastructure, Facebook and WhatsApp clearly are not irreplaceable. There is Signal and e-mail, there are phone calls, and for those who remember, there even are letters to be delivered by a good old postal service.
After all, the mega corporation who arguably owns the internet these days can be expected to fix a DNS issue. Resolving the incident should be a matter of hours, not days (and that’s how it turned out). A temporary inconvenience rather than a tragedy.
Turn a few miles into less ‘developed’ territory and the story becomes a different one.
My neighbour from Afghanistan wasn’t able to reach his family back home at all. Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp are the only way of long-distance communication they are used to. They depend on Facebook’s services because it is how they were introduced to the internet. He has heard of Signal by now. Mom and dad back home? Not so much.
Economies out of service
These standards may read like a recipe for a truly accessible and, dare I say, sustainable world wide web. Yet, we’re talking about a centralised, privately owned platform sitting on the web – and that platform went down, leaving millions hammering at its gates.
But, as we all know, even in the more developed regions of the planet Facebook has become business-critical in the most literal sense of the term.
According to the transcript of a quarterly call in 2018, Sheryl Sandberg – named Facebook‘s “Typhoid Mary“ by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, because she carried over the invention of data surplus from Google – goes on record referencing over 80 million active small and medium-sized business pages on Facebook alone. Numerically, that is all the SMBs in the U.S., China, and half of Europe combined at the time – and their number will only have grown, not to mention the rise of Instagram, or the number of African countries whose entire economies practically run on WhatsApp.
When Facebook went down, these economies literally went out of service from one minute to the next, left in complete uncertainty about what had happened, while people whom I personally respect a lot were passing out tongue-in-cheek blogging advice. I’m sure it wasn’t aimed at the families in Nairobi, Lagos, Mumbai, or even New York City whose livelihoods depend on a scooter-powered delivery service. But that’s the problem: few of us tech folks seemed to be able to comprehend the human catastrophe that was unfolding, because to so many of us Facebook is just a meme-worthy, expendable toy.
#FacebookDown is precedent
In the aftermath of #FacebookDown, I’m not reading enough about the damage done to those whose choices, when betting their livelihoods on a digital gatekeeper, aren’t determined by preference, but need.
Yet I cannot help but feel relief. Because we finally have precedent. Not the first, but to my knowledge the most total one so far.
When the lights went out at Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, a theoretical risk became brutal reality. It could always happen. Now it has happened, and I dare hope people will remember it can happen again.
All valid concerns about a privacy-invasive, inhumane business model aside, we now have undeniable proof how irresponsibly fragile the concept of a single centralised global communications monopoly is when it lures the most vulnerable among us into depending on it with their lives.
Let October 4th be the day we remember that those of us who enjoy the privilege of convenient access must do their part in reclaiming the digital gates that are being held hostage by the Facebooks of this world for those whose daily lives offer a far smaller set of choices.
Cover image by Marat Gilyadzinov via unsplash