The internet and social media stopped on Wednesday. Or at least a portion of it — that vast portion staked out by Facebook and its dozens of acquisitions like Instagram and WhatsApp.
And it was wonderful.
Because of what was deemed a server configuration change, Facebook, Instagram, etc., were intermittently down for nearly 24 hours. Facebook’s 2.7 billions worldwide users had to go without posting pictures of their meals or sharing their outrageous conspiracy theories or delighting their friends with ironic memes.
In between frustrating bouts of maniacally refreshing only to find their profiles failing to load, people had to find other ways to pass the time. Like talking to each other. Or reading. Or focusing on work. My guess is Wednesday will go down as the most productive day of the year. And Twitter’s busiest day, too.
It was all kind of annoying and amusing to see everyone discussing how they survived the great social media outage of 2019.
Too bad Facebook wasn’t down Friday. That’s when the world saw the decidedly darker side of the internet and social media working perfectly in sync with the most vile side of humanity.
After distributing a rambling, extremist manifesto to politicians, media outlets and throughout the internet, a 28-year-old Australian man, perhaps working with others and armed not only with semi-automatic weapons but with a head-mounted GoPro camera, killed at least 49 men, woman and children who were worshiping at New Zealand mosques.
He broadcast it all on Facebook live. And he got exactly what he wanted. In addition to the suffering his terrorism caused in person, he went viral.
Long after he had been taken into custody and charged with murder his 17-minute video was being viewed and, in some odious corners, appreciated. It’s debatable just how diligently the tech companies were working to take it down given that they don’t see themselves as having any particular responsibility because they claim they are merely platforms for their billions of users to post whatever they wish.
It’s not as if this was any sort of first. Child abuse, suicide, murder, it’s all been broadcast live on Facebook. YouTube has certainly had its share of issues, too.
The same companies that have designed brilliant algorithms capable of deciding in milliseconds what video or news story or friend post you should see next can’t figure out a way to remove the worst content humans can create.
The much-vilified news media grapples every day with ethical questions about what stories to pursue, what details to include, what photos to publish and what videos to air. Decency and good taste are factored in as is the possibility that publicizing certain things will cause copycat behavior. (Even networks broadcasting sporting events routinely cut away from, say, a streaker running on the field, lest airing the idiot and the inevitable applause such an act generates might encourage others to do the same.)
Editorial decisions are judgment calls. They aren’t easy and we don’t always get it right. How much information should be included from a police report on a heinous act? Too little and it makes it seem sterile and not so bad. Too much and you risk further hurting the victims and offending the sensibilities of the audience.
Similarly, how much — if anything — should be reported about a bomb threat to a school? Which suicides — if any — should be reported and to what degree? Should this column have included the name of the Australian man charged with the murders? Should this column have been written at all?
There aren’t any easy answers, but at least we’re asking the questions. Let’s hope the tech giants are truly interested in asking similar questions, and coming up with solutions, and not just considering how their numbers on NASDAQ are being affected.
Remember the good old days when the worst thing Facebook and its ilk did was ruin marriages by reuniting high school couples or give rise to the meme culture or alter the course of elections?
The internet and social media play a major role in radicalizing the confused, the disenfranchised and those already inclined toward evil. Somewhere today there are depraved individuals breaking down Friday’s New Zealand massacre in an effort to figure out how to improve upon it — watching the video and devouring the coverage to come up with ways to increase the body count and the worldwide clicks, all the better to become a viral legend.
As much as technology has improved our lives in so many ways, wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot more of the unexpected nothingness we saw Wednesday when tapping on our phones or clicking keys on our laptops than the abomination we saw on Friday?