What Difference Does an 18-Minute Facebook Outage Make?

How can a website going offline for just a few minutes affect the world?

by / September 4, 2014

Things fall apart, so the saying goes, though it’s not always front page news when they do. But for some, the 18-minute global Facebook outage on Sept. 3 was a catastrophe. Some were genuinely concerned and upset; others, not so much as they relayed tongue-in-cheek panic via Twitter.

Others joked that someone should dial 911.

Some really did call the authorities, just as users did the last time Facebook’s service lapsed, and the authorities responded:

Over the past few years, many huge websites experienced outages ranging from a few minutes to several hours. Facebook, Nasdaq, Amazon Web Services, Yahoo Mail, Bank of America, Twitter and GoDaddy have all had outages in recent memory. There’s even a rumor that HealthCare.gov once experienced some downtime.

An expectation that things should work perfectly 100 percent of the time is a uniquely modern phenomenon, but the implications of a Facebook outage might lend some legitimacy to such an entitled viewpoint. Facebook’s cultural and financial impacts are hard to accurately quantify because they are so grand.

Studies on the addictive qualities of social media like Facebook have led researchers to several realizations, including one that quitting Facebook is more difficult for some than quitting cigarettes or alcohol. Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental agreed that such addictions exist and surely impact our culture in some way.

“We see Facebook usage now at around 1.4 billion people, about a seventh of the planet,” Reichental said. “And people use it frequently – the average smartphone user looks at Facebook about 14 times a day and so when it’s unavailable, it can have consequences. When you go in and it’s not available, you don’t get that rush, you’re not getting the dopamine release.”

How people spend their time within a society impacts everything, from economic growth and crime rates to artistic and cultural values. “It’s now almost the single centric way in which we share our lives with each other,” Reichental said. “If you multiply 1.4 billion subscribers with the number of times each of us check it, that’s a massive amount of human time now committed to this one application in the world. I don’t think we really understand the implications of this.”

Dedicating countless hours to a virtual world and jonesing for a digital high through a small portable screen sounds like something from science fiction, but within the span of just a few years, it’s become real. Beyond culture, an outage of just a few minutes can have huge impact on the financial and business worlds, Reichental said.

“My understanding is Facebook generates about $22,000 per minute. So, if it was out for 20 minutes, that’s almost half a million dollars they’ve lost,” Reichental said. “Now, how many businesses are built on top of the Facebook platform, multiplied across the world? In e-commerce, every minute equates to real dollars.”

Web usage statistics validate Reichental’s assumption of financial loss to some degree, as a chart published by Business Insider and Chartbeat shows that without Facebook facilitating link sharing for 18 minutes, people looked at fewer things online through their mobile devices. In a sample of 3,000 popular websites, mobile traffic dipped noticeably during Facebook’s outage. However, desktop traffic also dipped, but it soon saw an overall increase after the outage, though it’s possible people were just searching for an explanation as to why Facebook wasn’t working. And that’s when the 911 calls ceased, as all was right in the world once again.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.