Atop Giants

October 7, 2021

The applications owned by the Facebook group were down for nearly 6 hours this Monday. This was especially frustrating for people who use some of them as a communication tool (WhatsApp, Instagram direct messages, and Facebook Messenger), though people who just wanted to scroll through their feeds were disgruntled too.

Many businesses rely on Facebook's programs. In fact, some use them as their main communication tool, which means that the outage caused a big disruption to their operations. It was even worse for companies whose main product is an application that depends on Facebook's applications. Take for example Sprout Social, a social media management tool that allows users to schedule posts to Facebook and Instagram. Their whole operation is dependent on the smooth functioning of these social platforms, so their business was severely affected too.

This is called third-party risk and, depending on the product or service a company sells, it can be impossible to avoid. Digital Marketing companies are likely to depend on Facebook and Google to serve their ads. Browser plugins depend on the web browser (usually Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox). Influencers rely on the networks in which they have amassed a substantial number of followers.

Such is the gravity pull of these behemoths that they create a vast ecosystem of businesses around them. But if a product stands on the shoulder of giants, it stands no chance of surviving when the giant falls, and it better hold on tight if the giant needs to sneeze.

An internet dominated by a few big players not only creates a problem for the companies that have built their offerings on top of them, but it also creates problems for society as a whole. Some giants already constitute a key part of many countries' infrastructure. For example, if Amazon Web Services (AWS) went down for 2 days, chaos would ensue. It's next to impossible to predict the full extent of the effects this would have.

Granted, AWS has its affairs in order and it's unlikely that something like Facebook's outage would happen soon. Still, we should be looking for ways to minimize these single points of failure. Numberless companies depend on Amazon to host and run their key digital services, and lots of companies depend on these companies. The failure would propagate down the network, leaving many citizens deprived of essential services.

At the societal level, we can build all kinds of alerts and back-up systems, but a failure of a central player will still have big consequences. I can't think of any decent way of decentralizing the cloud without drastic measures, such as imposing market share quotas on the cloud services market.

To mitigate risk at the company level, one can build products that are less dependent on bigger players. For example, building a web application has less third-party risk than creating a native one (which is distributed via Google Play Store and Apple Store) and influencers that use multiple social media are less reliant on any one of them. But there are trade-offs. By dividing focus, some users or followers will not be served as well as they could be. What works well for one platform, such as short funny videos on TikTok, will not do as well in Twitch or Instagram.

Business owners, marketers, developers, influencers, be advised: giants fall. Build a solid empire.