A social media nightmare: when Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal and more go down

A social media nightmare: when Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal and more go down

munch.scream2It’s been an interesting morning in the wonderful world of social media, hasn’t it? First, Twitter went dark. Then Facebook started acting janky. Then we all sat there and just stared at the blinking cursors on our screens, with their telepathic messages of “get back to work.” But did we? No! Of course not– we went over to FriendFeed to discuss.

Twitter reported its outage being caused by a denial-of-service attack. (Quick explanation: when skilled nerds/hackers write programs to flood a server with tasks and requests, so that the server is overloaded and taken down.) What happens when we come to rely on the social web for all kinds of things, and then those services disappear? Sure, we can all merrily hop over to the next one, but as Allyson Kapin pointed out, to a certain degree, we’d all have to start over on building our networks. Our social capital translates across platforms, sure, but the physical reconnecting of users to users is one big pain in the butt.

This all points to a larger problem with how market-driven application development can be highly problematic. Yes, it creates competition, but moreso, it creates closed networks and proprietary systems. Each service — Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, etc — uses its own private structure to amass our networks for us. While messages can be passed between them, there’s no way to really share the data that accumulates over time between services.

Twitter disappears, for example, and we all go over to FriendFeed. But I have probably a fifth of the community on FriendFeed that I have elsewhere, because I haven’t spent any time cultivating it. And I can’t immediately transfer all of my Twitter community to FriendFeed. I can check my Gmail contacts and see who’s on FriendFeed, but I can’t just say, “Bring over my Twitter group to this service.” That’d be problematic for anyone trying to make money off of building these services, I guess, if we could all just drop them and run. It reminds me of the same onus that contract-cancellation fees of the mobile networks put on subscribers to stick with them.

It also frightens me, to some extent, about the future of the Web when it comes to ubiquitous-yet-proprietary services. I think about what we might be dealing with today had something like email been developed as a proprietary service. Right now, email works the way that it does because there were early, agreed-upon protocols for transporting the information. Developers implemented service improvements and new ways to interact with email over time, but the fundamental-ness of those early protocols remains true today. Anyone can email anyone else. There is no, “wait, you’re on Gmail, I’m on Hotmail, we can’t talk to each other.”

(Nerd moment: Remember when the early online services were like this, btw? When AOL wouldn’t let its users access different parts of the Internet, like Usenet? Ah, the grand old days of walled gardens. And where are they now?)

In the case of social media services that focus on rapid-fire, short status updates, there is no agreed-upon protocol. I’m the worst kind of technologist when it comes to these things, too, because I know there’s a service that’s open source and based on open principles. It’s called identi.ca. Why don’t I use it, if I’m so worried? Because hardly anyone else I know does, because it’s not very pretty, and because I still can’t search my contacts to see who else is on. I’m a sucker, like everyone else, for ease of use.

So, what do we do? My heart says: all you smart designers and coders, go work on identi.ca and get it looking and working nicer. But my head knows that’s probably not going to happen, at least not right away… so I’ll just be here, staring at the blinking cursors, waiting for Twitter to come back up.