When the New York Times published an opinion piece on Monday morning saying the recent leaked documents showed Facebook was fragile
, it didn’t know just how fragile it would prove to be a few hours later, in quite a different way.
If you’re not up-to-date with how it happened, the plain-English explanation for the huge Facebook outage was that a simple mistake in a configuration update led to the internet not being able to find Facebook services whenever anyone tried to access them. And because Facebook uses its own services for much of its internal communication, and even as authentication for opening physical doors in its buildings, the response took a lot longer than it might otherwise have done.
The modern world is dizzyingly complex, but at the heart of it is humans. Humans who make mistakes. Humans who assume other humans have thought about the problems they spot but aren’t responsible for fixing. Humans who—due to time pressures, budget restraints, or laziness—hold crucial software together with the coding equivalent of string and sticky tape.
It’s easy to shrug off a Facebook outage as not very important, but if you live in a country where Facebook or WhatsApp is the main communications infrastructure, you probably had a grim time on Monday.
The headlines shouting about how Mark Zuckerberg ‘lost’ $6bn of net worth
in hours during the outage due to stock price drops highlight another problem. Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t meaningfully impacted by that drop. No-one was. The people who obsess over ‘world’s richest person’ charts will have got excited, but that’s about it.
So we had a problem caused by weak infrastructure that underpins a company often presented as far too strong. And that led to a fake problem with fake money, which was really nothing more than numbers on a spreadsheet triggering a narrative about wealth.
Much of the world as we know it today is actually layer upon layer of narrative about how the world really works. When we see the cracks in those layers, it can be disarming. But if all those layers were all stripped away, would really have much of a world left?