What does this week’s outage tell us about our relationship with Facebook?

What’s happening? Facebook’s social media network experienced a six-hour outage on 5 October 2021. During routine maintenance, the connection between the company’s data centres shut down, causing the DNS servers to go offline and bringing down the Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram services. The issues proved difficult to fix, while almost all internal systems for Facebook employees broke, preventing them from communicating. (The Verge)

Why does this matter? There are roughly 2.98 billion active users on Facebook, one billion on Instagram and two billion on WhatsApp. With such a large section of the world’s population using services owned by Facebook, it’s worth looking closer at our relationship with social media. Many users rejoiced at the prospect of a break from these platforms, but in what ways do we depend on them? And could a more prolonged blackout do more harm than good?

Mental health – The outage happened during a period in which Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has made an appearance before the US Senate to scrutinise the Big Tech firm’s inner workings. The hearing included the discussion of Facebook’s strategy of targeting teens and how Instagram – in particular – can be damaging for younger people, a claim backed up by Facebook’s own reporting.

The company has attempted to make changes to address concerns by introducing “sensitivity screens” to hide images of self-harm while also experimenting with the removal of likes to reduce pressure, however the negative effects on mental health persist and remain difficult to ignore. As these events collide, Facebook is again being confronted with how its platforms affect users.

Dependent on Facebook – Despite the outage forcing many to take well-needed breaks from social media, there are also those who were adversely impacted by the blackout. Small businesses, for example, often rely on Facebook to drive sales through advertising with approximately three million actively employing ads on the platform. One business owner claims to have lost between $300 to $400 during the outage. The incident has now forced businesses to re-consider advertising strategies as a more prolonged event could sustain a severe financial impact.

For others, the outage wasn’t just a social media blackout, but the loss of entire communication networks. In Afghanistan, for example, these platforms play a crucial role in everyday internet life such as WhatsApp which has displaced traditional phone calls – which are considered expensive and less secure. Facebook is also a login gateway for various shopping websites, smart TVs and connected devices.

Worth noting – By understanding how critical Facebook’s operations are to the functioning of important parts of the internet, we’re starting to witness why a monopoly on internet platforms could be a bad idea. Over its lifetime Facebook has fended off increasing calls for it to be broken up. Commentators have speculated that these efforts will be amplified under the Biden government after President Biden appointed antitrust experts Lina Khan and Tim Wu to the Federal Trade Commission and National Economic Council respectively.

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