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When Social Media Life Support Fails

On the 4th of October, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram experienced a major six-hour-long outage. Some of us barely noticed it, others thought for an embarrassingly long time that their internet had broken, and some chose to use this time as a detox from social media. But some people realised that we are scarily dependent on a gigantic monopolistic corporation that controls our social lives.

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has been, since 2014, an owner of not only the original platform created by Mark Zuckerberg but also the massively popular Instagram, WhatsApp and their original messaging platform, Messenger. The company had been shifting towards a unified system of functioning. One of the moves made was changing the messenger icon from plain blue to a pink-purple-blue gradient in advance of enabling cross-platform messaging between Messenger and Instagram. And although it might seem like a cool option in the future, we can already see the potential setback to this system, which the most recent outage showed.

It’s not just about one company

To be perfectly clear, outages happen, websites break, and servers are overloaded for various reasons. It’s not exactly normal, but it can happen. In 2020 alone, there were 3 major Google outages. Can you imagine being forced to use Bing on three separate occasions in one year? And their search engine is not even the most irreplaceable service provided by Google. Gmail is estimated to have 1.5 billion users, just short of 20% of the global population, relying on Google for communication that might be essential for personal and work life.

The problem isn’t in any single website breaking. The problem is when those companies conduct mergers and make business decisions that hinder the competition. The more they aim towards the unification of social media and communication platforms, as Meta does, the more likely is a crash of a single platform to affect the whole ecosystem of Meta, leaving users without their main communication tools.

We make the social media

One of the main problems is that monopoly draws us to the sites like Facebook. Many people remember at least one experience of having two simultaneous conversations with the same person on two different platforms, where tone and topic vary drastically. Using only one messaging platform can solve this dissonance.

Social media is only as useful as its users. Platforms rely on their users to gain popularity and expand. What good would Instagram be without pictures or Reddit without people with too much time on their hands? We are drawn to these apps because we want the content they host, but we are also the ones making that content and most of us barely ever profit from it. And that’s the problem of social media: how do we make ourselves less dependent on these apps without losing all the benefits they provide?

Not all apps are popular amongst all demographics. It is often the case that certain communities have special platforms they like to use that are generally considered obscure. Still, they are popular enough within their group to use as a substitute for one of the mainstream apps. WeChat is an extremely popular app among the Chinese diaspora, because it allows communication with friends and family in mainland China, where Facebook is not accessible. Still, it’s considered quite obscure beyond that community, because most people outside of the Chinese population have no need for it.

When I arrived in Tallinn, Estonia on my Erasmus, I was surprised that none of my friends wanted to give me their phone numbers and instead just added me on Facebook, which I had barely used until now. This obviously became a problem when I tried to communicate with them during the outage.

So what’s the solution?

As annoying as it sounds, I would suggest stopping relying on one medium of communication and making sure that the ones you do use are disconnected from each other. I don’t think it’s feasible to stop using social media altogether, or for everyone to delete their Instagram or Facebook accounts. I know I wouldn’t do that because it helps me communicate with people I know and gives me access to the information and perspectives I would have a hard time finding elsewhere. Social Media in and of itself aren’t bad tools for connection and information and allow us to connect to people with similar ideas or interests far more easily as well as spread them to a larger audience. To simply stopping using them permanently would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And considering we had already sold our information to Meta, and they don’t fully delete it anyway, you might as well use what you paid for.

It is a valid argument that social media is very much linked to an increase in depression and feeling of loneliness, aswell as issues with body image, and we should monitor how much we use social media and take breaks from it, especially if we notice our mental health to deteriorate. We most definitely should not use it as way to deal with negative feelings either, to mindlessly scroll on and distract ourselves. Taking a break, even very long ones, will do you more good than harm. I am however aware that it might not be possible to cut off completely, and that a source of communication tool might be needed , especially as the Covid restrictions ramp-up again and a new period of isolation is not completely out of the question. Of course we don’t necessarily need to to rely on Meta to provide us those tools.

Two alternatives to WhatsApp of Messenger are Telegram and Signal, which are messaging apps of a quite similar form and function to the former two and are quite a viable alternative. Telegram, on top of sending messages and hosting group chats, enables creation of channels, where one can be used for one-sided communication, and another can be used for news or announcements. In addition, both Telegram and Signal are committed to protecting the privacy of the users, something which especially differentiates them from Messenger, whose privacy policy is quite lacking.

Many people had noticed these advantages. After the outage Telegram reported 70 million new users, which could put them as a viable alternative to Whatsapp. Something that should be noted here, is that both Telegram and Signal are a bit worse than Whatsapp or Messanger at supporting voicecalls, not to mention video calls, which can lag even more significantly . However if text-based messeging is all you are looking for l can, by all means, recommend them. I could also recommend Discord, which started as a communication system for gamers in terms of voice calls. It is now probably the most popular chatroom software due to its structure, allowing for more organised communications.

To conclude, I don’t recommend simply switching from one app to another, but diversifying our app choices. Of course you don’t have to use all of them at once. But still, having a backup in case one fails, and comparing them in terms of functionality and safety, might give us the upper hand over social media monopolies.

Or- you know, we can just read a book for a couple of hours; to each their own.