What did we learn from the Facebook outage?

Grace Macej 15 Oct 2021

For one, digital wellness is achievable with a balanced digital diet

“I liked this platform better when it was down,” snarked a friend of mine on Facebook, referencing last week’s surprise outage when Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire went dark for almost six hours. 

For many, the blackout was no joke. The New York Times reported that “more than 3.5 billion people around the world use Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family, distribute political messaging, and expand their businesses through advertising and outreach.” When it all blinked off last week, daily rhythms around the world, in both personal and business sectors, were disrupted.

But another thing happened as well – we were all forced to live in a world without Facebook for almost six hours, and underneath the chaos and inconvenience, some people reported feeling a great sense of relief. 

There were no new notifications to check, no new posts to see, no new “friends” to envy. And the magic of that particular moment is that everyone was experiencing it together, so there was no trace of any FOMO. Everyone knew the platform wasn’t working, and everyone turned to other things. Some actually went out for walks. Some met up with friends in person (!). And some just enjoyed the rarely-felt digital tranquility. Thus, the underlying truth in my friend’s snarky post was revealed. 

Further reading: Facebook outage: How to prevent your own network failures

Dr. Anne Lembke is the author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, as well as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University and the Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford’s School of Medicine. She told CNN that the Facebook outage was something of an “accidental en masse experiment that hopefully revealed to people just how addicted they’ve become.” If the outage served as a wakeup call to some, then it wasn’t all destructive.

Hopefully, it triggered a reassessment in everyone, a close look at how much social media we consume in our daily diets. The more we live online, the more we need to care for our “digital wellness.” Social media algorithms are programmed to feed us more of what we like. If we show interest in something sad, we’ll begin seeing more sad content show up in your feeds. Same thing with violence, conspiracy theories, weaponry, and so on. Impressionable minds exposed to such a constant flow of content can develop skewed ideas about the world.

Mark Zuckerberg and company already know this, as whistleblower Frances Haugen recently testified before Congress. When the company announced they were working on a version of Instagram for kids, there was such a public backlash that Facebook said it was pausing the project in order to listen first to the concerns of “parents, experts, policymakers and regulators.” Then, less than a week after Haugen’s testimony, the company announced two new Instagram features in development – one aimed at “nudging” teens away from harmful content, and the other designed to occasionally suggest that users “take a break” from the platform. No timeline was given for either feature.

The secret to digital wellness, however, is not to take a break when the platform suggests it, but when your mind and soul need it. And we must teach younger generations who have known the internet their entire lives how to balance screen time with daily life and care for their own digital wellness.

If you’re not sure whether or not you need to rebalance your digital life, here’s a good exercise. Dr. Lembke said, “As a society, we need to establish digital etiquette and tech-free spaces where we intentionally leave our phones at home and really make an effort to be present in the moment in real life with each other.”

Think about that for a moment. If the idea of being someplace without your phone sends a panicked chill up your spine, this is the perfect moment to start thinking about balance. 

--> -->