A Day Without Facebook

The social giant’s temporary disappearance means absolutely nothing.

Facebook logo on a black background, but the "f" is like a window looking out across a flowery meadow
The Atlantic

In the 2004 film A Day Without a Mexican, Sergio Arau imagines, in mockumentary style, what would happen to California if its entire Mexican-immigrant population vanished. With so many housekeepers and farmworkers, teachers and gardeners, line cooks and police gone, the state seizes up.

Yesterday became a day without Facebook when the company’s services went offline. It wasn’t just that the website was down, but all traces of it were gone, as if it had been raptured into oblivion. Some of the company’s employees were even locked out from its campus.

The past few weeks had already seen a flood of bad news for Facebook, starting with The Wall Street Journal’s series of Big Tobacco–style revelations about the company’s unrelenting drive to dominance, continuing through congressional hearings, and culminating in a 60 Minutes interview on Sunday with a former employee who said that the company knew all about the damage it had caused but didn’t care. At The New York Times, Kevin Roose surmised that “Facebook is weaker than we knew.” Some speculated that yesterday’s outage was caused by a hack—Facebook, which has dodged serious official regulation, finally getting its just deserts from a rogue operative (it wasn’t). Battered by the waves, Facebook seemed, to some, on the verge of sinking, the outage a sure sign of a breach.

This is fantasy. I’ve previously written that infrastructure is everything you don’t notice—until it fails. But even when something infrastructural (be it a bridge or Facebook) fails and you do notice it, that doesn’t mean anything will change. Memory evaporates quickly, and the infrastructure becomes invisible again. Think of all the times one or more airline computer networks have gone down, sometimes for entire days, stranding travelers globally. What happens next? These fallen giants revive, catch up on their backlog, and then resume fueling and loading and flying. What else would you expect them to do? Just give up? Cede the airways to a hypothetical future of high-speed rail or fossil-fuel-sparing travel abstinence?

If anything, a widespread outage tends to reaffirm the public’s reliance on whatever it is that just went out. My God, people realize, I didn’t know how much I counted on airplanes or electric power or working heat or duck-egg-pizza delivery. Or social networks, which are so named because, for worse or for worser, they have become a primary means by which people interact and exchange ideas.

And so it went for Facebook too. During the downtime, one of my Atlantic colleagues reported neighborhood listservs lit up with panic at the vanishing of members’ usual place for lighting up with panic. Businesses that run their web presence through the platform, including many shops and restaurants, suddenly got cut off from their customers. Facebook is much more than facebook.com, though; it’s also Instagram and Messenger and, more importantly, WhatsApp, a service that has become the de facto telephony and text-messaging system in much of the world. It’s more than apps, too: A shadow infrastructure of Facebook logins, tracking systems, and other integrations serves the websites of organizations large and small. The whole internet slowed down as all that plumbing seized up, until the blockage finally cleared the U-bend toward the sewer of Discourse.

Despite its promising premise, A Day Without a Mexican devolved from incisive critique into awkward parody. The Los Angeles Times called the result “toothless,” amounting to a good question asked but left unanswered. The movie showed how the public can be entirely reliant on the shadow infrastructure of Mexican labor, and that this reliance may coexist with a desire for change, in the form of, for example, revised labor and immigration policy. But desire itself doesn’t magically lead to resolution. Everyone forgot about the film, which had no impact on politics or art.

Likewise, yesterday’s day without Facebook will have no lasting effect—nor even a temporary one, besides fueling a spate of technology columns like this one. Between the time I started and finished writing this article, Facebook reappeared, vanquishing its critics’ very brief and implausible dream that, somehow, a trillion-dollar behemoth could be felled by a few hours of off-time, while most of its many billions of users worked or slept or shopped for mustard. Those who did notice were probably more inclined to panic or grouse than to reflect on Facebook’s hypothetical end: People with no idea how computer networks work apparently flooded their mobile carriers with angry and confused calls complaining that they couldn’t access Facebook on their phone. Then the site’s blue banners returned, along with its apps and services, and the humans of Earth continued posting and liking, scrolling the infinite scroll to nowhere.