Arts

@ Large | Michael Andor Brodeur

Dealing with downtime

(FILES) This illustration file picture shows the US social media Facebook logo displayed on a tablet in Paris on February 17, 2019. - Facebook's feature allowing users to erase all their data is set to be released this year, many months after it was announced by the leading social network.David Wehner, Facebook's chief financial officer, said in comments February 26, 2019 at a Morgan Stanley technology conference that the company is planning to roll out the feature that was announced last May amid heightened scrutiny over Facebook's privacy. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images
LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Usually when I think of Facebook going down, it’s in the grander sense of the expression, and I just happen to be standing on the rim of the yawning fault line that splits wide the earth and swallows its server farm whole. I go to this thought whenever I need a happy place.

Meanwhile, I hardly ever think of Facebook “going down” in the more mundane, 404-not-found sense. It hardly ever happens. 

Say what you will about the social media colossus in terms of its ethics, privacy, security, functionality, and pulverization of the bedrocks of society — it sure knows how to keep the lights on. Over the years, Facebook outages have been few and far between, amounting to a lost hour here and there — or a gained one, if you’re an employer.

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But this week, just as everyone (or at least one of us) was getting ready to post the perfect Tucker Carlson zing (I’m keeping it to myself for now), Facebook experienced its worst outage ever, thwarting the posts, likes, and time-wasting intentions of millions of users for nearly 24 hours. “Sorry, something went wrong,” read the error message, echoing the apology of someone who hasn’t quite ascertained the full dimensions of his or her [expletive]-up.

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The disruption, which Facebook insisted was caused by “a server configuration change” and not a DDOS attack by hackers, also spread to Facebook-owned services including Instagram, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp. Facebook stocks tumbled 3 percent, and one can only guess what kind of damage was done to general public awareness of how cute my new haircut is. 

Another reason why I hardly ever think of Facebook grinding to a halt is because, as social media goes, it’s akin to the air: Everywhere. After a decade shaping the way we live online, a day online without Facebook directing traffic becomes something of an existential jam. 

Twitter lit up all afternoon with frustrated exiles from the stalled platform, stuck tweeting about Facebook (which I believe Elvis Costello once compared to Instagramming about Tumblr).

And indeed, the topic- and zing-driven terrain of Twitter proved an insufficient replacement for many in comparison to the low content bar of Facebook. Posting the usual minutiae of one’s day on Twitter felt like releasing a note on a napkin to fly down the street. (In other words, a little too real.)

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I’d always imagined that years of contempt had hardened my regard for Facebook into something more like a utility than a diversion. In the past, when I’d taken voluntary breaks from it, it felt like a form of camping — consciously discarding the conveniences of the now for something more natural-seeming. There was a pride in abstaining, in wasting one’s time differently. 

But when Facebook just goes kaput — or in the case of this past week, when one population is left on the outside looking in, unable to participate in its appropriation of the public square — it becomes quickly clear (and quite concerning) just how hard-wired we are to it. 

Reports rolled in early in the afternoon that verified what I suspected was a systemic failure after a few photos of mine failed to post. But knowing that Facebook was down didn’t stop me from unconsciously attempting to “like” images — only to have my thumbs-up swatted away.

Similarly, attempts to message friends to ask if they were having problems went nowhere — and further nowhere when I realized I didn’t have their phone numbers. I’d see posts float by like message in bottles I couldn’t reach: “Test,” one read. “Can you see this?” read another.

Unsettling was this sudden transformation of a social network into a strange limbo of absence and presence; more unsettling was the bigger implication: That a “server configuration error” in some distant humming glowing valley of servers is always one spilled glass of water away from halting — in an instant — the primary means of human interaction for millions. 

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I mean, sure. While Facebook wasn’t working for one whole day, I had a pretty swell time. I read a manual for a physical machine I didn’t know how to operate. I swept my desktops (real and virtual) and emptied my trash (same). Anyone who has ever dropped their phone through a sewer grate knows the invasive thrill of liberation that comes with a forced sign-off from the matrix. 

But something about this day full of stunted impulses — unshared songs, unforwarded articles, unvoiced thoughts, unliked content — felt deeply wrong: What are these new habits we’ve formed? What do we lose when our connection is cut? And how did we come to depend so subtly and seriously on this stream of strangers and its indifferent current? 

Short answer: Something went wrong.

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.