What happens when a website with 2.85 billion active users on it— over a fourth of the world’s population— inexplicably goes dark? This is exactly what happened on October 4th, after Facebook, along with all of the other Facebook apps including WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, and Oculus, all suddenly went dark— causing widespread global communication difficulties and exposing just how dependent the world has become on the platform.
At around 11:40 Eastern time that Monday morning, users began reporting error reports when trying to send messages on the platforms. Several minutes later, Facebook seemed to have disappeared from the internet. The blackout lasted over five hours, prompting many jokes and memes as users began traveling to other social media platforms— such as Twitter and Tiktok— in Facebook’s absence. As millions flooded into Twitter during the blackout, the company Tweeted: “hello literally everyone” to which Instagram responded with: “Hi and happy Monday.” Many users made jokes about the outage, in particular, using stills from the extremely popular new South Korean Netflix series: Squid Game. While Facebook scrambled to get the site back up, Twitter enjoyed the flood of users to the platform, and continued to poke fun at its rival company throughout the day.
However, even though the jokes were funny, Facebook’s blackout still caused widespread disruption— and the impact of the loss of the site was far reaching and severe. In the age of the Internet, Facebook has become a pivotal aspect of our global communication systems. Particularly in the global south, where Facebook has become synonymous with the Internet. Thus, the loss of the site felt like the closest thing to losing the Internet— in a sense. The impact spanned far beyond simple communication services. Facebook is now used to sign into many other apps and services, thus, people suddenly had issues logging into shopping websites, signing into smart TVs, and even changing the thermostat— according to The New York Times.
But this isn’t the first time that Facebook has gone dark. Back in 2019, a technical error affected the site for 24 hours— yet another reminder of the Internet’s fragility. Technological outages are fairly common, and seemingly can happen to even the most powerful platform on the Internet. Like the recent blackout, the 2019 blackout reminded users that no matter how powerful your platform is— it is still susceptible to error. The aggregator in the most recent outage? Facebook claims that the problem was changes to its infrastructure that coordinates the traffic between its data centers. This interruption ultimately had a ripple effect, and soon, “[brought their] services to a halt,” the company explained.
Although by 7 PM Eastern time, about seven hours after the site went down, CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a Facebook post announcing that the site was coming back online again, the blackout exposed just how heavily the world has come to rely on the company, and just how precarious the technology really is. “Today’s outage brought our reliance on Facebook— and its properties like WhatsApp and Instagram—into sharp relief,” said Brooke Erin Duffy, a professor of communications at Cornell University. “The abruptness of today’s outage highlights the staggering level of precarity that structures our increasingly digitally mediated work economy.”
While the site may be up and running again, the lasting effects of the incident are unknown, and it seems clear that the company is going to have to do some intense damage control to fix the public trust that was inevitably broken. In a blog post responding to the black out, Facebook’s vice-president of infrastructure promised to make the site more resilient, and work to prevent a blackout from ever happening again. “People and businesses around the world rely on us every day to stay connected,” he stated. “We apologize to all those affected, and we’re working to understand more about what happened today so we can continue to make our infrastructure more resilient.”