It would be easy to have a good laugh about Facebook being down all day were it not for the countless small businesses and organizations that have come to rely upon it for their web presence.
I am troubled by the degree to which Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and the like essentially are the internet for so many people. Around here, it is mostly Facebook itself that people go to for news and community; for a lot of small local businesses, non-profits, and even local government entities, Facebook has effectively become their website. When is the co-op open? There website doesn’t say, but it’s on Facebook. Is the town Rec Department’s summer camp indoors or outdoors today? Look on Facebook. What is the Board Of Health discussing at their meeting on Thursday? A vague agenda is posted on the city’s website as required by Massachusetts Open Meeting Law, but the details are on Facebook.
It makes sense—Facebook is free, it tends to be where the people are, and it is familiar and relatively easy to use. What is the alternative? They all go set up and maintain their own websites or newsletters or whatever, or pay someone to do that for them? How would people find and follow them? Searching on Google is largely broken because of their inscrutable algorithm that is weighed toward paid ads and placement, and the vast majority of folks have no idea there are alternative search engines out there.
I hate Facebook, but it is undeniably much simpler in terms of discovery and connection than a bunch of disaggregated services and individual websites.
Advocates of the open web argue that the tools are there to do all of this ourselves so that we do not have to rely on Facebook and its ilk. That is true, to an extent; I am publishing this post on my own website, and my website provides an RSS feed that you can plug into a news-reader app so that you can follow it. Alternately, I could use a newsletter platform like Substack or Mailchimp to send out my posts to anyone who cares to subscribe to them. Or I could use an independent microblogging service like Mastodon or Micro.blog for Twitter-like publishing.
The problem is that while it is easy enough to say that the tools are out there, it is an entirely different matter to say that anyone can use them. I have been working in and tinkering with internet technology since the early 1990s and hosting and maintaining my own blog since 2004, and I still find it to be a confusing and annoying process. The hyperbole of the early-2000s web evangelists notwithstanding, even with relatively standardized tools like blogging platforms, it is not realistic to expect that most folks are going to take the time and effort (and money) to stitch a bunch of them together and be their own publishers.
Nor is it realistic to expect large numbers of people to go figure out RSS and feed readers, no matter how simple those of us who use them regularly think they are. They are also not going to spend a bunch of time curating their feeds and finding interesting and thoughtful accounts to follow. As much as many of us (and I include myself here) wish that the open, disaggregated web were the answer to these problems, it is not. That vast majority of people are just never going to use any of these tools or hear about why the open web is better than proprietary, monolithic platforms; they just want to read the news and talk to their friends.
Even setting aside the many problems with Facebook as a company and its business model, yesterday’s outage shows the risks of having so much of the web concentrated an a single platform for so many people. When it goes down, millions of people and businesses and organizations are cut off, and they have no practical fall-back options.
I am mostly at a loss as to how we solve this problem, or at least make the situation better. In general, I think I probably return—as I often do—to the idea that huge platforms with millions (or billions) of people on them are an unsolveable problem that should be abandoned.