The day the Social Media died (for a few hours)

Yesterday Facebook, followed by WhatsApp and Instagram, went dark in the largest failure they had ever seen, with 10.6 million problem reports globally. With these social media platforms having gained huge momentum around them, we rounded together personal feelings and interesting analytical insights of the outage from our experts across the Miltton platform. Here’s what came up.

Facebook is an internet giant, who at least right now realistically speaking does not have any competitors with the exact same offering. Though many people turned to Twitter yesterday, in Finland more Tweets were sent, for example, on Friday October 1st compared to the time during last night’s outage.

What many perhaps haven’t thought about, is the role that these social media companies have been given. Facebook can be used to sign into many other apps and services, and an outage like yesterday’s leads to unexpected effects such as people not being able to sign into their smart TV’s or home appliances. Privacy and security are also really important, and the fact that really private conversations happen behind passwords means that we tend to think it is safe and we rely on it to be that way.

It’s definitely not just a question of “well, switch to Signal or read a book instead of browsing through Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram”. The issue seems to be about a larger concentration of power and what happened yesterday made the issue of our dependence on internet giants clear to users. It’s a fundamental question of how our societies are run and is this the direction that we want.

But evidence against this type of concentration of power has been building on for years. In spite of the massive evidence on what the concentration of markets and eventually concentration of power leads to (for citizens, business, and our democracies!), the public interest in the matter has been low. Will this now change?

Regulation of social media platforms needs to be tackled on a societal level, but we need to think bigger on a global scale. Finland is too small to deal with the internet giants alone. The European Union is barely big enough to make a change. The EU so far is pretty much the only regulatory body that has tried to put the brakes on. It’s been late, and as usual with the EU, the processes are slow, but we have the GDPR, and in the pipelines we have two massive regulatory tools (called the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act for those interested) which would give the EU much, much more leverage to deal with the platforms than previously. It is interesting to see what passes in the legislative processes, but even regulatory possibilities to break up such companies could be on the card. Anyone relying on these platforms for crucial parts of their business should be interested in what happens with the regulatory efforts. That’s because if no action is taken, on its own the market concentration and the risk for serious disruptions, let alone other risks like how your data is not really yours, are only set to increase.

WhatsApp and Messenger groups are used widely in politics too, from small election campaign support groups to informal discussions by the top leaders of the country. They are used for practical coordination but also, for example, as an opportunity for members of parliamentary groups to ventilate emotions and situations. Many politicians moved their discussion from WhatsApp to Signal last time there were problems with WhatsApp. Politicians differ a lot too: younger ones use multiple apps and older ones tend to stick with what they know.

Because of the role especially Facebook and Instagram now have in democracies where a lot of the political discussion and debate happens online, it is interesting to think of the consequences of such a social media outage for example close to a big election or other important event of political decision-making. Especially for younger generations, these platforms are an integral part of social and political engagement as well as important points of sales and marketing for smaller businesses.

These super interesting viewpoints came from our experts on social media, digital platforms, politics, public affairs, regulation and global affairs. However while all of this top-level discussion is going on, these social media platforms are used by normal people, wanting to connect with their loved ones and to share pivotal life moments. We thought this personal anecdote described the user point-of-view the best.

“These collapses always remind me of how much of our personal life and communication is dependent on these platforms. Some of the most important relationships in my life mostly happen over WhatsApp, and while this of course creates a wonderful digital archive of those relationships, it also takes away some of the privacy I’d hope for. What if Facebook one day for some irrational reason would decide to block me from their services, or launch a new business model where access to my WhatsApp chat archives would from now on cost 170 dollars a week? Or what if seeing who liked my selfie on Instagram would start costing 5 cents a like? I’d be tempted. Always when WhatsApp goes down for a moment I realise how dependent of it I’ve become, or how much of my very private relationships I’m willing to just hand over to them. And then, in all honesty, when things return to normal, I tend to forget all this critical thinking and just keep on chatting and posting.”

In the end it comes down to this. How much should you rely on platforms that are not really yours? And can our societies and communications continue to be dependent on platforms which are not really ours? At any given time policies can change, political actors can exercise influence (GDPR for instance) and you might be left with a big chunk of your online presence practically cut off or limited in some way?

Focusing on building quality content, user interaction and communities around your brand in the places you own, especially your website, can help you take real ownership of your digital footprint.