On Monday, Facebook-owned properties (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus) went down in the biggest outage they’ve had since 2008, apparently. If you didn’t notice directly, you probably saw it on Twitter or somewhere. (Twitter had some comedy gold that day.)
What actually happened doesn’t matter that much – unless you’re one of the people who broke it and/or had to fix it, or anyone else whose systems may be similarly designed and implemented, and therefore vulnerable. (A decent explainer if you’re curious.)
Some other big Facebook news slightly preceded the outage: that the platform knowingly profits from harm. Which isn’t exactly a surprise.
The whole episode brought two other notable issues to light, and not for the first time:
the precarity of user tenancy on platforms
billions of people losing access to a major personal and business channel
It’s easy to forget, but we are all tenants online. We don’t own or control any of the technology or services we use daily. That includes everything from generating the electricity to running the servers and data centres to the development, maintenance and upgrades of the websites and apps themselves. We didn’t make them and we can’t fix them. We don’t own them and we don’t make money from them, at least nothing like the billions of dollars per quarter that companies like Facebook and Google do.
We are allowed access to these platforms. We are allowed to do things on them. Given their extremely high uptime, most people don’t give that much thought. Platforms like the ones Facebook owns are just always there.
Of course, some people understand more directly the degree to which we all just serve at their majesties’ pleasure. Sure, some do abusive or illegal things on these platforms and deserve to be removed, temporarily or permanently. However, accounts and their access are also all too often weaponized as part of harassment campaigns by bad actors against activists, high-profile women, people dealing with abusers, and residents of countries that decided American-run social platforms were bad news, to name a few.
The average person can lose access to their accounts and their contents and have zero power over that. Or, on a day like Monday, people can lose access to the platforms that form a significant part of their day, social communications, or businesses, and have nothing comparable to switch over to (though some businesses reported their phones started ringing off the hook).
Sure, jokes may have come easily on Monday, but the outage affected many people’s livelihoods. It removed their ability to promote products or services, to make money from ads or affiliate links, or execute on other business strategies related to Facebook’s platforms. Whatever revenue Facebook lost is small change to them. Individuals and small organizations might have lost far less in monetary terms, but experienced far greater difficulties.
I’m not a huge WhatsApp user, but vast swaths of humanity are. Millions of families and groups use it to communicate. Hell, entire countries use it as a main communications and business platform (though that business varies in how official it is...).
Per this BBC piece, the outage affected doctors’ ability to communicate with patients and colleagues and governments’ ability to communicate with citizens. In Brazil (population 212 million) WhatsApp is commonly used for both of these things.
Families spread out around the world rely on WhatsApp constantly. India has 490 million WhatsApp users and 340 million Facebook users. That’s a lot of communication to go silent. An example mentioned in the BBC article was someone’s father getting COVID treatment in Malaysia. Imagine if you got a message that your dad had been taken to the ICU… and then silence, for six hours. You’d be losing your mind.
Now, by evening in eastern North America, Facebook properties were getting back online, so people could breathe a sigh of relief, send messages and memes about what a wacky day it was and go back to business as usual.
But that would be a wasted opportunity – a chance to really think about, plan, and start working on ways to run businesses and maintain social networks that don’t rely on big companies in California. Because this will happen again, for one reason or another.
What if that solar superstorm actually happens? That wouldn’t just nuke Facebook. That could nuke the internet. And yes, admittedly that would cause far bigger issues than I can address in the scope of this column. But you gotta start somewhere.
Various governments have called for less-monopolized online spaces and protections for citizens. I am here to help as well, though this is by no means an exhaustive primer on how to gain independence from the platforms on which we are merely serfs and sources of lucrative user data.
Got a physical address book? Can you access it if your phone or computer dies? Maybe do something about that. It doesn’t have to be fancy. I don’t know about you but I have a million random notebooks I don’t really use. Record people’s home and email addresses and phone numbers, even their landline numbers if they still have them. (Next quandary: your list of your business’s hard-earned contacts or subscribers.)
Do you even know your best friend’s cell number? I don’t. When the zombie apocalypse hits and you need to look up your prepper friend’s address to fight your way to their house, you’ll thank me. (How you’ll get there without Google Maps… well…)
You might have people you only know how to contact via a social platform. You might even have apps on your phone you only use with one or a handful of people. Are you OK with losing contact with them? If so, carry on. If that’s not OK, you might want to nail down alternative contact methods for them. If they don’t want to provide them… see the previous option.
This is also something to address with your loved ones. Stuff happens in life, and whether there’s a new baby or an untimely death, people need to be notified. Do you know how to reach them? A Facebook post isn’t going to do the trick for most of my family. How about yours? What about your mom’s church group or your brother’s baseball team? Recording a key contact for relevant groups who can disseminate news for you is a good idea. My best friend and I swapped contact info for immediate family, just in case. I even have a copy that’s not in Google Docs.
Besides the contacts in your accounts, what about the content of your accounts? We’ve dumped terabytes of media into them (per account in some cases). Years, if not decades of photos, video, stories and more. Would you have access if the account got nuked? Do you use Instagram for portfolio purposes? The platforms have instructions for downloading copies of your stuff. Perhaps look that up.
Where should you put that stuff? Well, there are plenty of cloud-based options, but then that’s another version of the same problem. Portable hard drives are quite reasonable, but will die after a while. Burning CDs? I haven’t had the hardware to do that for years.
When my family had a house fire, our photos and such survived, but needed specialized cleaning. I know other people who weren’t so lucky. Media storage has always been a crap shoot.
For those using social platforms for business purposes, they are not a substitute for your own website and other communication methods. (See also the previous column on brand/community building and the socials.) Social channels should be supplementary. Social channels should be supplementary. Which is pretty much antithetical to the business strategies of younger entrepreneurs who’ve built their businesses on social channels – or it was until Oct. 4.
Get a domain name, get a website. Ideally get email addresses with your domain name. Yes, you will still be a tenant using those technologies as well, but your tenancy will be far less precarious. And you will have much more control over the content and access, not to mention more privacy.
Start a newsletter. There are any number of services, and some are free for smaller distribution. Again, still tenancy, unless you go really DIY, but more control. I won’t get into advice and how-to info for newsletter or email campaign strategy, but you can find lots of info online. Even if you’re not trying to build your brand right now, it’s not a bad thing to learn about. After all, an endless stream of companies use those strategies and tactics on you on a daily basis.
Newsletters are and have long been a great communication and marketing channel. And there are no rules! If you want to announce a sale and a contest and include a photo of a capybara, you go right ahead. If you want to play around with length and content and frequency, have at it!
I particularly enjoy newsletters from authors. Book news, sure, but also comics, movies and more. Event notifications, recipes – anything goes. It’s like a Tickle Trunk in my inbox. Another one that’s work-related does a great job of communicating key nuggets of industry news and links to quality sources. It takes care of some of my research and it’s better than doomscrolling any day.
Now, with any communications channel, consent is key, and legally regulated in many places. So make sure people have opted in to any and all modes of communication from you (double opt-in, ideally).
Few people aside from my Old Order relatives and my 87-year-old neighbour live entirely offline any more. And I love the internets too much to advocate that. But put yourself first. Put your relationships and business interests first. No tech giant is ever going to do it.
Besides, being a bit more hands-on helps keep us learning and nimble and helps new ideas flow. When did you last get a great epiphany from Facebook?
Yeah, thought so.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at email@example.com