OPINION | Nthabi Nhlapo: Facebook outage took away the thread that connects

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Several Facebook apps appeared to suffer an outage on Monday.
Several Facebook apps appeared to suffer an outage on Monday.
Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Imag

After Facebook, Whatsapp and Instragram went down, Nthabi Nhlapo used her newly found spare time to ask herself some existential questions about the role of social media in our lives.

"I think I'm dying."

"You really have to do something. I think I'm losing my mind."

These were the first two in a flood of text messages I received barely an hour after the Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram outage.

Then the panicked call came. "Where are you? Are you alive? You know I get worried to death when you don't even go online on WhatsApp the whole day. Are you fine?"

The voice on the other end of the line was my mom, panting, convinced something terrible had happened. And it had, just not in the way she had assumed. The world was practically shut down, yet, at the time, WhatsApp had acknowledged that "some" people were "experiencing issues". Tech issues, family issues, relationship issues – it seemed the tech giant was unaware just how many issues this outage was actually causing.

"Check Telegram because I can't live like this. I just need to talk to someone," said another SMS from a friend.

She'd been SMSing me the whole day, and I'd been taking liberties with my newfound privacy and taking my time responding to texts - bye-bye "blue tick" (for now).

The migration to Telegram

It reminded me of the time when we all thought we'd abandon WhatsApp and migrate to Telegram when WhatsApp "threatened" us with a dodgy privacy policy. It seemed Telegram had become the neighbour you didn't like but she watched your dogs when you were out of town, so you played nice. So, I decided to play nice with Telegram, but I had absolutely no clue if it had a blue tick-esque functionality. It made me somewhat reluctant to purge my newfound freedom of secretly "blue ticking" texts.

But then again, I was slowly cracking too. I then half-heartedly got onto Telegram but my craving for social media remained unfulfilled.

According to Statcounter, more than 60% of South Africans are on Facebook and almost 5% on Instagram. And it's common knowledge that most people with smartphones choose WhatsApp as their messaging app.

Moreover, typically when one platform is down, there's always another to replace it. But when three major platforms are down at once, it becomes quite the crisis. In my case, I had no choice but to sit with my brain and dig deep into some existential questions.

Are we living in a virtual simulation, where social platforms fuel our existence? Why do I feel so disconnected, lonely and just hard done by this outage? Does social media matter that much? Why am I even paying for an SMS bundle on my cellphone contract? That's an existential question in the sense of why do SMSes still exist anyway, but I digress.

I thought of a recent article I read about the dangers of social media, and ironically, it seemed, its most significant threat was the lack thereof.

Lost balance 

Everyone around me seemed to have lost their balance and was feeling lost with just an outage of a few hours.

Yes, we have a fake news problem, a mental health concern and premature exposure for children on social media. But it had never dawned on me what a connection advantage we had from the very thing that posed a threat to society's safety and well-being. Like most other people, I'd barely spoken to my family, friends and even colleagues since this outage – but I tried to bear in mind that WhatsApp, in their Twitter announcement about the outage, had thanked me (and millions of other users) for my patience in advance, so deep breaths it was.

The only positive about this outage was that my inclusive SMS bundle finally got used, though it only served to console me in that most other people weren't coping and did nothing else to make the situation any better. What everyone missed was that sense of oneness that made us a community, those conversation starters at the end of a random link on WhatsApp. That was what the social media outage took from us.

It's quite paradoxical that not being able to get on these potentially dangerous platforms created justifiable angst among all of us, not just Gen Z and millennials. Even my Boomer mom was in a state.

Significant consequences 

One may argue that we could use SMSes (which most of us did), but there are no profile pictures, stories or status updates on SMS, and that's akin to having no communication at all. To be frank, it is quite a catastrophe that a minor inconvenience comes with such significant consequences – if that makes any sense.

It really shouldn't be a big deal when social media has an outage. But it was like being expected to savour a salty scone at a tea party. I just don't see anyone rushing to join that kind of tea party and we wouldn't have gone to this one served by Facebook (Instagram and WhatsApp) if we had a choice.

- Nthabi Nhlapo is the W24 editor.

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