You can learn from mistakes. That certainly applies to mistakes that Facebook makes. The hours-long outage that shut down Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp on Monday was a blunder from the book. A warning not to rely too much on a network over which we have no control.
Twitter, which welcomed the influx of visitors Monday with “Hello virtually everyone”, overflowed with smirking Facebook users who joked that it was so nice and quiet – a night without Facebook. And then start tweeting with each other.
Social life, which is often organized via group conversations in WhatsApp, also fell silent for a while. All around me I see football teams, school classes, bridge clubs, mop bands, family groups and entire corporate departments communicating with each other via WhatsApp – owned by Facebook. That’s the easiest: doesn’t everyone already have WhatsApp on their smartphone as standard?
Until it stops working.
The suspected cause of the outage was quickly known: due to a mistake in Facebook’s network configuration, the internet domains Facebook.com and Instagram.com disappeared from the map. The Facebook staff themselves were also unable to get started, as all their online tools were inaccessible.
The culprit was the ancient Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), a list of server addresses that internet routers exchange worldwide. It wasn’t right anymore. In the past, those kinds of BGP problems also resulted in major failures. It is an outdated technique, but so well established that it is difficult to change.
This also applies to WhatsApp: the app is so well established that it is difficult to change its use. With more than 12 million Dutch users, it is not easy to tear yourself away from those app groups, or to introduce an alternative.
If such a major disruption occurs in the ordinary telecom world of KPN, T-Mobile and VodafoneZiggo, the network providers must support each other: they roaming – offer each other’s users access to the network. Such roaming agreements also exist if you switch on your telephone abroad. As a user, you actually don’t notice this at all.
There is no such arrangement with chat services. Every service there wants to retain its users and tries to prevent them from switching. That’s why it feels like a leap of faith: breaking away from your chat history, your social network. But it can.
Google knows how difficult it is to compete with Facebook in the field of messaging: Google has more techies and more budget, but failed build a good chat service. Even Google’s attempt to buy WhatsApp failed.
Currently, Google is trying to convince telecom providers that they can use RCS, a improved form of SMS, should be integrated as standard. RCS is still an Android party, because Apple doesn’t want to get involved. Apple sticks to iMessage, a kind of QR pass for the iPhone users in your contact list. Plans to make iMessage also work on Android have been torpedoed by Apple: you no longer sell phones with that.
There are plenty of spare WhatsApps. Telegram for example. I myself am trying to transfer my network step by step to signal – safe and not-for-profit. Until recently, this was based on the argument that Facebook does not take your privacy very seriously, and should not be supported as a company ‘on principle’. However, most people don’t care about that: it works, doesn’t it?
But thanks to last Monday’s outage, WhatsApp itself gave the best argument to install a backup WhatsApp. With the whole sports club, with all colleagues, with the whole family: record your apps and go for a walk.
Marc Hijink writes about technology here every week. Twitter: @MarcHijinkNRC