Facebook’s apps went down. The world saw how much it runs on them.
By Raymond Zhong
For more than five hours on Monday, the world got a taste of life without Facebook and its apps.
People in many places discovered that Facebook and its apps had burrowed their way into nearly every facet of existence.
In Mexico, politicians were cut off from their constituents. In Brazil, pharmacies stopped receiving prescription orders. And in Colombia, a nonprofit organization that uses WhatsApp to connect victims of gender-based violence to lifesaving services found its work impaired.
“Because we have a field team, we were able to mitigate some of the more serious risks today’s outage presented,” said Alex Berryhill, the director of digital operations for the group, Cosas de Mujeres. “But that might not have been the case for hundreds of other hotlines around the world. Today was a big reminder: Technologies are tools, not solutions.”
The Facebook outage on Monday was a planetary-scale demonstration of how essential the company’s services have become to daily life. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger have long been more than handy tools for chatting and sharing photos. They are critical platforms for doing business, arranging medical care, conducting virtual classes, carrying out political campaigns, responding to emergencies and much, much more.
The unease around a single corporation mediating so much human activity motivates much of the scrutiny surrounding Facebook.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has filed an antitrust lawsuit against the company, accusing it of being a monopolist that acquired Instagram and WhatsApp to secure its dominance. Facebook has been under fire for weeks after a whistleblower, Frances Haugen, shared internal documents indicating, among other things, that the company knew Instagram was worsening teenagers’ body-image issues and that it had a two-tier justice system.
The revelations have spurred criticism from regulators and the public. On Tuesday, Congress is scheduled to hear testimony from Haugen about Facebook’s impact on young users.
Much of the recent criticism of Facebook has focused on the decisions the company’s leaders make — or fail to make — about governing, running and making money from its platforms. But another consequence of Facebook’s size is that many more people are affected when there are technical lapses like the ones the company says were responsible for Monday’s disruption.
In Brussels, the home to the European Union, where many government workers use WhatsApp to communicate and share information, the outage led to a fresh round of calls for more oversight of the biggest tech platforms.
“In the global digital space, everyone could experience a shutdown,” Thierry Breton, the European commissioner drafting new tech regulations, said on Twitter. “Europeans deserve a better digital resilience via regulation, fair competition, stronger connectivity and cybersecurity.”
Worldwide, 2.76 billion people on average used at least one Facebook product a day this June, according to the company’s statistics. WhatsApp, which Facebook purchased in 2014, has been downloaded nearly 6 billion times since the beginning of that year, according to estimates from the data firm Sensor Tower.
India accounted for about a quarter of those installations, while another quarter was in Latin America, according to Sensor Tower. Just 4%, or 238 million downloads, were in the United States.
In Latin America, Facebook’s apps can be literal lifelines in rural places where cellphone service has yet to arrive but the internet is available, and in poor communities where people cannot afford mobile data but can find a free internet connection.
Cosas de Mujeres, the nonprofit in Colombia, has hundreds of interactions every month with Colombian women and Venezuelan migrant women who face domestic and emotional violence or are at risk of trafficking or sexual exploitation, said Berryhill, the organization’s director of digital operations.
“WhatsApp is a very important tool for our service,” she said. “Usually we have phone operators receiving messages from women all day via WhatsApp, but that was not possible, and women could not contact us.”
María Elena Divas, a 51-year-old Venezuelan migrant in Bogotá, Colombia, uses WhatsApp to take orders for snacks like empanadas.
“I didn’t sell anything today,” Divas said. “It was a hard day for everyone like me.”
Elsewhere, people said that the disappearance of Facebook’s apps hindered their work in some ways, but that it also removed a source of distraction and noise, making them feel better and more productive.
James Chambers was panicked at first for Chez Angela, the Canadian bakery he and his wife own in Brandon, Manitoba. They usually post four to five times daily on Facebook and Instagram to draw customers into the shop. In a community of 45,000 people, the bakery boasts about 14,000 followers total on the two platforms.
“Facebook is down, but our ovens are hot,” they wrote on the bakery’s Twitter account, with a 12-second video that showed golden-brown pastries as Foreigner’s slow-dance hit “I Want to Know What Love Is” played in the background.
But Monday suggested to Chambers that Facebook promotion may not be all that important.
“As the day went on, we actually found more people coming in and saying that it was good to be disconnected,” he said. “It was their most productive day in a long time, and we closed the day 30% above our normal Monday sale.”
Drogasmil, a pharmacy chain in Brazil, now takes many of its prescription orders via WhatsApp, said Rafael Silva, a Drogasmil pharmacist in Rio de Janeiro.
On Monday, there were none, Silva said from behind the counter that night. But because he and his colleagues also couldn’t chat on WhatsApp, the day felt “more serene,” he said.
Out of habit, Lorran Barbosa, 25, a cashier in the pharmacy, found himself repeatedly refreshing WhatsApp on Monday. Even so, he said, he, too, found the day more peaceful and productive.
“I think it shows we can live without technology,” he said. “Today, maybe not so much. But we have to remember it’s not all about technology.”
Across Latin America, vendors in the vast informal economy rely on Facebook’s platforms to market their products. Their personal WhatsApp accounts often function as customer hotlines.
Elizabeth Mustillo, a cake maker in Mexico City, said the strangest thing happened on Monday: Her phone started to ring with orders. She was forced to talk, not text, with her clients.
“It’s crazy,” Mustillo said. “No one ever calls anymore.”
A decade ago, customers would come to Mustillo’s store with a drawing or a clipping from a magazine with the design they wanted for a cake. Today, she rarely meets her clients. They send photos of cake designs by WhatsApp. They wire money through a banking app. And when her work is done, she orders an Uber to deliver the finished product.
“Most of my clients do not even have an email account anymore, unless they are working at a corporation,” Mustillo said. “It’s all WhatsApp now.”