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Opinion What the Facebook blackout taught us

Facebook's WhatsApp logo on a laptop in Brooklyn on Oct. 5. (Gabby Jones/Bloomberg)

Facebook finally stopped looking invincible this week. Revelations from a former employee cracked open the company from the inside, and the guts that spilled out were ugly enough that it was reasonable to ask whether the scandal represented an existential threat.

What happened next? Facebook disappeared.

The progression from table-thumping over Facebook’s sins to a universe temporarily sans Facebook was practically cinematic. Monday’s massive hours-long platform outage threw us, as most movies worth watching do, into a fantasy world that told us an awful lot about the real one: Imagine life without Facebook.

The result showed how essential and how inessential the platform is all at once.

Fittingly, the day Facebook was nowhere appears to have resulted from an attempt by Facebook to be everywhere.

The explanation experts seem to have settled on goes a little like this: Someone inside Facebook, likely accidentally, sent a signal to a routing system deep in the Internet that made it impossible to find the firm’s servers. Usually, this situation is more bother than imbroglio because you can send a new signal to correct the record. Yet Facebook, almost laughable in its predictability, runs all its repair work through Facebook — so absolutely every aspect of the remote infrastructure needed to reboot the platform was already inaccessible.

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Plus Instagram and WhatsApp were gone, too, because Facebook had insisted years before on inextricably entangling the services in a move that skeptics believed was designed to preempt antitrust action by making breaking up the company much, much harder to do.

Naturally, Facebook’s misplaced reliance on itself is a mirror showing our own reliance on Facebook.

No matter whom you asked, the case of the vanishing platform revealed many truths. Among them: Facebook is too powerful, because when it disappeared Instagram and WhatsApp did, too; Facebook is good for society, because without it, we are deprived of Instagram and WhatsApp; and Facebook is not powerful after all, because when it briefly collapsed society did not. If that last one’s true, though, why are we so worried about its monopolistic hold on human attention?

The reality, at least in the United States, is more nuanced. Plenty of smart people argue that Facebook ought to be regulated as a utility, but it was a lot easier to go an afternoon and early evening without the site and its sister apps than to go without electricity or water.

The world and the Web chugged on — functionally (“Hello literally everyone,” hailed Twitter’s corporate account, greeting the instant diaspora) and dysfunctionally (“Could this be the blackout?” conspiracy theorists wondered in the fringe forums to which they’ve flocked, referring to the nutty QAnon notion of a 10-day period of mass arrests of pedophile elites). And all this was able to occur without Facebook.

Yet — in some measure it was able to occur because of Facebook. The Twitter conversation was dominated by confabbing about Facebook; many of those occupying the fringe forums were first exposed to the sinister theories that now obsess them on Facebook.

The tension is starkest in the countries where citizens really are dependent almost exclusively on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram for communication and commerce. Facebook disappeared, and life there got worse. But life became worse only because a market-hungry Facebook made itself indispensable by hoovering up WhatsApp and Instagram back in the 2010s. But WhatsApp and Instagram may never have become so useful without Facebook lending them its resources and its brand.

This infinite circle of events and eventualities entraps us, so that within every facet of the fight over the company’s past and future ripples a sense of inevitability. Yet at least in this country, where it is now obvious that Facebook isn’t the Internet, we don’t have to stay trapped.

A network of friends already in place is more convenient than a new network built from scratch; a product backed up by billions of dollars of ever-flowing profits is often superior to a scrappy upstart; a chance to connect with anyone around the globe whenever and wherever, even with the attendant harms, is preferable to no chance to connect at all. The way we engage with this network, this product and this chance, however, is up to us.

Which brings us back to the fatal flaw that caused Monday’s outage: Facebook’s deliberate entanglement of itself with itself. This was a design decision, and not an especially intelligent one, judging by the results. Yet our own lives aren’t designed by the creator deity of Menlo Park, Calif.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to regulate Facebook into behaving more responsibly itself — but the site’s success depends on our devotion to it. We logged off this week by necessity. We could log off next week by choice.