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 their messaging tools, such as WhatsApp, Instagram direct messages, and Facebook Messenger. People who just wanted to scroll through their feeds were disgruntled too.

For many businesses, Facebook's programs are critical. 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.

The dependency of a company on another company is called third-party risk and, depending on the product or service, 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 to which they are plugged in, such as 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 galaxy 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 he even sneezes.

An internet dominated by a few big players creates problems not only for the companies that have built their offerings on top of said players, but also for society as a whole. 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. Any failure would propagate down the network, leaving many citizens deprived of essential services. We can build many kinds of alerts and back-up systems, but a failure of a central player will still have dire consequences.

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). Influencers that use multiple social media are less reliant on any particular one among them. But there are trade-offs. What works well for one platform, such as short funny videos on TikTok, won't do as well in Twitch or Instagram.

Business owners, marketers, developers, influencers, be advised: giants fall. The more your business depends on someone else's, the more your fates are entangled.