Where Everyone Goes When the Internet Breaks

Downdetector is a simple, ugly utility, which becomes a weird little life raft for displaced communities when their websites crash.

The Atlantic

It can happen at any moment, yet we’re never prepared. When Twitter crashes, how do we tweet about it? We try and try. When Instagram is down, no one can see what we see. When the instant-chat apps of American offices sputter and crash, we go to Twitter and say, “We promise we are still working!” We feel lost, bereft, confused, fidgety, as we are forced to make typing noises with our mouths (“talking”). We hover over our keyboards, moving our hands in ways that don’t make sense, like former nicotine addicts who continue to hold pens as if they are cigarettes.

There is only one place to take all this pain and nervous energy: Downdetector, a simple, boring website founded in 2001 to report outages of all kinds of internet services. It’s the first search result for questions such as “Is Twitter down?” and “Is Facebook down?” and “Is Gmail down?” and “Is the whole internet out in New York City?” On any given day, if everything is working fine, a graph showing just tiny smatterings of failure reports will be painted a soothing aquamarine. If, as with Facebook’s News Feed this morning, something is starting to go wrong for a greater number of people, the graph will spike and turn red.

On the most basic level, the site is an SEO play, its CEO, Doug Suttles, admits. The technology is not so sophisticated—the outages are determined almost exclusively by user reports—so Downdetector stands out as the internet-outage website mostly because Downdetector has already been, in so many people’s brains, the internet-outage website. It has become the internet’s panic room, suffused with snow-day energy.

During big outages, even Suttles scrambles to the site to watch users solving their own problems. “It’s fun, I can’t deny,” he says. The summer of 2019 was a particularly eventful one because of an outage of Google’s core services in June and another Facebook outage in July bringing in millions of reports. “We have fallen in love with outages,” Suttles says. “There’s always a bit of joking giddiness internally. We all go, Whoa!

These tiny states of emergency draw all kinds of people to Downdetector, sometimes just to hang out. Our days are made up of habits and places, and more and more, these habits and places exist online, argues Caroline Haythornthwaite, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University and a co-editor of The Internet in Everyday Life. “It’s like hanging out with friends,” she told me. “That’s what makes people stay—just socially being there with others.” Though we sometimes talk about the internet as ambient noise or an otherworldly demon, it has become a near-physical environment, where there’s always someone to make fun of or gush over or accuse of stanning the wrong K-pop band.

Downdetector cannot re-create the experience of Tumblr or Twitter or Reddit or Instagram. (Especially not Instagram.) All it re-creates is the feeling that there’s someplace to go.

The comment sections on most Downdetector pages—“How much longer until internet is back and running in La Grande, [Oregon]??” or “Yo what’s going on in Texas with my internet???”—are largely practical. But when the social-media platforms as integrated into users’ daily routines as eating or bathing or breathing air go down, the comment sections on Downdetector become something like a life raft.

“Since Reddit is down this is the next best thing,” posters in Downdetector’s comments, which use the Disqus widget common on WordPress blogs, sometimes joke. Or, “Disqus is the new Reddit.”

This is not how Downdetector is meant to work: The comment sections exist for reporting outages and asking questions about outages. It is not considered ideal to go to Instagram’s Downdetector page and write “we havin a party in downdetectors disqus comments board [100 emoji] [100 emoji] [monkey covering his eyes] only real ones can come !!! free refreshments [heart-eyes emoji] [heart-eyes emoji].” Although another disappointed Instagram user offered to “bring da Capri Suns,” so it does sound fun.

Each platform’s outage page offers a distinct little character study. “This comment section is 70% kpop stans,” reads one comment on the Twitter-outage page, which is very Twitter. The comments on Tumblr’s page distill the essence of Tumblr into a substance so sweet and pure, it could cause instant cavities: “i had such a shitty day 2day but the december 21st 2016 tumblr crash ™ rlly made it brighter ily all <333333,” one thread starts, followed by a cascade of responses: “i love you very much,” “good post,” “purest,” “very good post,” “pure.”

It seems that some users even come to Downdetector to check on the status of specific Tumblr blogs, such as a confused Taylor Swift fan who wrote, “Taylor’s Tumblr is down?? WTF?? WHAT IS HAPPENING???” (Another commenter did pop in to explain that all of Tumblr was down, not just Swift’s page.)

Idling away a Reddit outage in the Downdetector comments, Redditors will carry over memes and play games—such as “Ask Ouija,” in which one person posts a sentence with a blank word in it and a spontaneous reply chain fills it in just one letter at a time. (It stops when someone replies “Goodbye.”) For Reddit users, the Disqus widget is particularly fun because it allows upvoting comments in the same way Reddit does. Upvotes on Reddit translate into “karma,” the site’s contribution-quality ranking system, so users drawn to Downdetector during an outage joke about upvoting for “that sweet disqus karma.”

“Since one of the reasons I go to Reddit is to pass the time, [Downdetector] fits the same purpose,” Matt, a 28-year-old Reddit user from France, says. (Matt asked to go by only his first name for professional reasons.) “People try to keep themselves and the others entertained. There is human connection in some way because the community is trying to cram itself in there.”

“There are shared stories and shared understandings of norms that can indicate that you’re part of this in-group, like, I get it, I’m a Redditor,” Sarah Ann Gilbert, an online-participation researcher at the University of Maryland, says. To her, the Downdetector migrations are a type of “social signaling,” in which Redditors reaffirm that they’re part of Reddit by showing up in this other, Reddit-touched space. Even apart from the nod to Hasbro-ified séances, the conversations have a slumber-party vibe. “This feels like a sleepover honestly,” one Tumblr user wrote on that site’s Downdetector page. When it’s over, there’s celebration and a tinge of sadness.

Downdetector does not actually want to be a backup social network, though, and Reddit users often report that they’ve been banned from the Disqus comments. “The comments within our website are supposed to relate to outage information,” Adriane Blum, the head of marketing for Downdetector’s parent company, Ookla, wrote in an email. “We do monitor the site to ensure that the comments displayed are as closely related to the outage as possible.”

There’s a rift here between intention and practice, form and function. Downdetector is supposed to be a bare-bones site built to point out the moments when other platforms are breaking. But its commenters have made it into a freewheeling, slightly chaotic party destination, used only in moments when the real event is off: Those who want to circumvent a Disqus ban are downloading VPNs and spoofing new IP addresses to get back on and keep talking. It’s a funny little space, acting as an inadvertent commons for people who can’t quite sit with the fidgeting of hands over a useless keyboard, or who think there’s something exhilarating about following a bunch of strangers to a second digital location.

Downdetector is itself hosted on the Cloudflare network, which underlies some of the internet’s most popular destinations, including Discord, Medium, and Peloton, and which went down for 30 minutes in July. The event “underscor[ed] the fragility of the digital world,” The New York Times wrote. Anyone looking for a place to complain was left adrift. There was no Downdetector to report that Downdetector was down.