Where were you during the ‘Great’ Facebook outage of October 2021?
If you’re sensitive to social and collective currents, you might have felt it on October 4th 2021, when Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp were all out of commission for most of the day.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of another major outage in my lifetime: the Northeastern Blackout of August 2003, when a power plant in Ohio led to a cascading event that knocked out electricity to over 50 million people in Ontario and the Northeastern States. I can still remember exactly where I was when it happened – on my way home from my Summer job at a theatre day camp for children – and how it felt. I remember how simultaneously awed and freaked out I was, worried that I wouldn’t be able to check in with loved ones because my cell phone had no service and even our landline (it was 2003, ok?) was cordless, needing electricity to charge.
There was a distinct emptiness in the air; a lack of buzz in downtown Toronto, as I walked (and eventually hitchhiked) along Bloor Street West with my guitar case increasingly heavy in my hand. The stillness was so palpable, and peaceful, even with the chaos of Friday rush hour taking place without the support of electric stoplights. Air traffic, radio, ATMs; everything was on pause.
Looking back, I know now what a relief that event was to my system. As a sensitive person (maybe even a ‘highly sensitive person’*) I feel electromagnetic fields. For real. One time, we had to flee what was supposed to be a month-long sublet because it happened to be across the street from a hydro transformer station and I developed an incessant, intolerable buzzing in my head from the EMF – but that’s a story for another day.
A Meaningful Pause
Back in 2003, as the afternoon turned into a warm Summer evening, people gathered outside, meeting & greeting neighbours they may have never seen before. People emptied their melting freezers and shared BBQ with strangers. For those hours, we were all in it together. Being in a big city without power was such a meaningful event, it’s even been turned into a musical!
This month, while the ubiquitous social media sites were down, there was a similar stillness. Internet users flocked to twitter, doing the online equivalent of walking around in a daze, like people do after something intense happens. The short-lived outage gave us a window into (1) how much people are invested into those sites, and (2) how ambivalent people feel about them – even regular users reported being relieved at the temporary reprieve.
The company later cited an error that happened during routine maintenance. (Incidentally, Instagram is a Libra —the company launched in October 2010— making it extra-vulnerable to the recent Mercury retrograde). But It wasn’t lost to those watching this unfold that the outage happened the day after a Facebook whistle blower testified at the US Congress about how the company suppressed findings of it’s own internal research that described Instagram’s negative effects on teenagers’ mental health, including contributing to girls’ body image issues.
All this month, we’ve been learning that Facebook knows – and has known – that the site amplifies and promotes hate speech, and that its algorithm radicalizes people rightward. Despite regular calls for oversight, the company remains unregulated, and seems to have its sights set on an even greater monopoly effect.
A Bigger, Complex Picture
I don’t have any answers about what this means. It seems obvious that someone needs to step in and (like was done with regulated auto safety or tobacco) create boundaries that protect people from its harm. As an xennial, I had the privilege of growing up in a time before the internet was ubiquitous. I know the value of connecting over a phone call rather than a DM, and benefited from the freedom to be stupid in public without risking that a video of that stupidity could be made permanently public and searchable. In those days, it was more possible to be bored; and on good days, that boredom was funnelled into imagination and creation.
Zooming out to shift perspective, I can see that our increased reliance on technology, with its more opportunities to connect, carries a strong signature of the incoming Age of Aquarius. This includes an ethic of expressing our unique individuality to the world and striving to stand out, as well as the drive to connect in large groups, and to seek out like-minded company. But there’s also an authoritarian nature to Aquarius, reflected by corporate monopolies owning our creative content and personal data. And there’s the cold irony of relating to one another on these large global platforms, all while being mediated by individual screens.
It’s easy to be critical and not do anything different. I use all three platforms for both personal and professional purposes (Speaking of, are we connected on facebook and instagram? Let’s be!). Obviously I hate the idea of my data being bought and sold, and there are plenty of studies linking social media use to decreased mental health. But I love that I can connect and collaborate with people around the world.
There’s no question, humans need to feel like we’re in community. And over the past year and a half, when in-person meeting was limited, so many of us have leaned into the digital space to fill that role. Speaking of, I’d love to hear from you. What’s your relationship to social media like these days? Which platforms are spending time on? Are you holding any boundaries around your digital time?
Leave a comment or send me a message – let’s connect!