Instagram and WhatsApp were also hit. It wasn’t the apocalypse, but for some people, it felt like it
When your grandchildren ask you how you made it through the Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp outage of March 2019, what will you tell them? Did you Google “Facebook down” to ascertain whether Facebook was, indeed, down? Did you call the emergency services?
Amid the breakdown of digital society, the Australian breakfast television program Sunrise publicised apparently official advice not to contact police over the mass outage.
Although it seems Sunrise may have exaggerated the demand on authorities by deliberately misinterpreting the police service’s tongue-in-cheek tweets, it felt consistent with the unlikely widespread chaos caused by some sites having somewhat reduced service for about half a day. #FacebookDown, #InstagramDown and #WhatsAppDown trended on Twitter as people compared coping strategies.
Celebrities, fearful that the inability to update their Instagram story might be enough for them to fade from collective consciousness, made clear to their followers that they were victims of circumstance. “Instagram and Facebook are down so here we are,” wrote Mindy Kaling. “Crossing my fingers this is my best performing tweet yet.”
Crank That rapper Soulja Boy seized the opportunity for self-promotion: “Facebook????? Soulja Boy App is up and well! This would never happen to us smh.” Others sought tech support. “@instagram,” tweeted Lindsay Lohan, “please contact me.”
The outage lasted more than eight hours – by some reports, the longest since 2008, when Facebook had a mere 150 million users. People found other things to do, such as go on Twitter, or join Telegram (the secure messaging site gained 3 million new users in 24 hours). A Chartbeat analysis of more than 4,000 online news sites found that, during a 45-minute outage of Facebook last year, their direct traffic increased by 11%, and traffic to their mobile apps by 22%.
Overnight, service largely resumed. Photos that had failed to send arrived at once, in a tsunami of screengrabs and shots of that night’s dinners; the liveblogs of our daily lives recommenced with a couple of hours’ delay on Instagram Stories; and the fairweather Twitter users returned to Facebook and Instagram. And the moralising began.
Pop star Troye Sivan called the temporary loss of Instagram – where he is followed by more than 10 million people – a “liberation”. The Fat Jew, an Instagram personality who rose to prominence for stealing other people’s jokes, sneered at the impact on female influencers as if his own livelihood were not dependent on the same economy.
But the response to the failure confirmed more than just that the Fat Jew is intensely irritating, and maybe a misogynist. That the short-term breakdown of just a few platforms could spur such chaos and commentary – really, a communal bonding experience – demonstrates their dominance. When we talk about “the internet”, how many of us really mean “the Facebook family of apps”?
More worryingly, however, the reaction to the partial, temporary loss of these services demonstrated our dependence on them. Even the tongue-in-cheek anxiety (or, conversely, the relief) widely expressed at the lapse of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp made clear the intensity of our ties.
We may be concerned about the impacts of our use of social media, we may claim to be relieved when they fail, we may even want to quit them entirely. But as the response to their partial failure for a handful of hours of only one day goes to show, many of us are in too deep to know where to start.