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.)
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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.