On Monday, October 4th, Facebook and its family of apps, including Instagram and WhatsApp, were inaccessible for approximately six hours. Seeming to disappear completely from the Internet, the sudden absence of a vital communications platform used by billions underscored just how dependent the world has become on the company.
From a technical perspective, Facebook’s DNS names stopped resolving, and their infrastructure IPs were unreachable. As Cloudflare put it in their excellent explainer of the event, “It was as if someone had “pulled the cables” from their data centres all at once and disconnected them from the Internet.”
Facebook on what happened
Naturally, people were looking to the company to explain or comment on what was going on. Initially, Facebook issued a fairly general explanation for the outage on Monday evening, stating that it was due to a configuration issue.
By Tuesday afternoon, though, after there was a little more time for the dust to settle—Facebook engineers provided a more detailed account. They explained that the company’s backbone connection between data centres shut down during routine maintenance, which caused the DNS servers to go offline.
The combination of these two factors meant that no easy fix was available and was, therefore, the reason why services were offline for so long.
Who was impacted by the Facebook Outage
Taking nearly six hours to resolve, the outage had a range of impacts across the globe. This is the worst outage for Facebook since a 2019 incident took its site offline for more than 24 hours. And like last time, the downtime had the most significant implications for the small businesses and creators who rely on these services for their income.
On a more general level, though, it simply meant that the 3.5 billion people worldwide are dependent on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family, share political messaging, and cultivate business interests through advertising and outreach were left in the dark.
Implications for Facebook
The timing of the Facebook outage was also somewhat ironic. Facebook’s Antigone Davis was literally live on CNBC defending the company over a whistleblower’s accusations when the entire network of services suddenly went offline.
For weeks, Facebook has been under fire due to the documents produced by Frances Haugen, a whistleblower and former Facebook product manager. The intel she was provided reveals that Facebook knew of many harms that its services were causing, including that Instagram made teenage girls feel worse about themselves.
Impacting other service providers
Amid all the negative publicity, the Facebook outage provided further incentive for people to seek alternatives to the titan of social media. As Cloudflare reported, “when Facebook became unreachable, we started seeing increased DNS queries to Twitter, Signal and other messaging and social media platforms.”
And although six hours may not seem like a huge number, even the loss in revenue for the company was substantial.
As was quipped in our internal GANDT Slack insights channel,
“Fun fact; if I haven’t miscalculated, the 6 hrs outage caused roughly 60 million dollars of revenue loss for Facebook.”, says Cecilia.
“Or -5.5% value at the stock market … bye bye 7-9 billion USD.”, answers Remco.
Could it happen again?
With a lot at stake for the company and users alike, it is fair that people ask whether something like this could happen again. And indeed, there is always a risk of failure with centralized social media services such as Facebook—where there is a primary data repository for all users and the only central authority that can access that data is Facebook itself.
A good example of how far-reaching the implications of this are is that even some Facebook employees could not access their offices because their security passes stopped working during the outage.
So although it probably isn’t something worth worrying about, the incident has likely caused some to rethink putting all their trust in a single platform. At the very least, it serves as a potent reminder to those of us working in the digital sphere that the Internet is a very complex and interdependent system of millions of systems and protocols working together.
More than five billion users around the world rely on these processes going smoothly, but, like anything subject to human interference, sometimes mistakes happen.