Facebook was away, so brands played (on Twitter)

There’s nothing a brand with a digital presence loves more these days than being able to insert itself into the “cultural conversation,” and there was no bigger conversation Monday than the sudden outage of Facebook and is associated services Instagram and WhatsApp.

The outage lasted for much of the day, and there was initial speculation that the social media giant had been hit with a denial-of-service attack by someone angered by the damning 60 Minutes report the night before, in which a former employee said its executives knew about the platform’s role in spreading harmful content but chose to prioritize profits over people.

In a blog post on Monday evening, however, Facebook attributed the outage to a network configuration issue. “We want to make clear that there was no malicious activity behind this outage—its root cause was a faulty configuration change on our end,” read the post, which went on to stress that there was no evidence personal user data was compromised as a result.

Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg also offered a personal apology for the outage on his own Facebook page. “Sorry for the disruption today,” it read. “I know how much you rely on our services to stay connected with the people you care about.”

The outage proved an unexpected boon for Facebook’s social media rivals. According to Bloomberg, the private messenger apps Signal and Telegram saw downloads and sign-ups “soar” after the Facebook services went down, with Telegram alone moving up 55 places in the iPhone download chart.

Famed whistleblower Edward Snowden also tweeted that Facebook-owned WhatsApp being down should serve as a reminder to people that they should be using a more private, non-profit alternative like Signal, while Signal also tweeted out that signups for its service were “way up.”

The outage was a galvanizing global event, and essentially turned Twitter into a playground for brands’ social media managers—providing them with a capital N news event to riff on without having to worry about facing accusations of being insensitive or disrespectful.

After all, other than being an annoyance to those people missing Uncle Ted’s vaguely racist posts or yet another #nofilter sunset pic, Facebook and its services being down caused no real societal harm (and in fact there were numerous tweets suggesting it was a good mental health day all round, and it was perhaps a good time to ask vaccine sceptics to get their shot).

Even Twitter saw the immense opportunity, issuing a tweet at 1:27 p.m. that read “hello literally everyone.” That led to a wave of responses from brands including Instagram, Tampax and Zoom, and suddenly the race for Twitter cachet was on.

The rest of the day was a free-for-all, with Canadian brands more than happy to play along. Harvey’s riffed on the ubiquitous Facebook birthday notifications with a tweet reading “Someone better fix Facebook quick before I miss someone’s birthday,” while Heinz Ketchup Canada seized the moment to promote its slow pour with a message reading “And people say we’re slow.”

And while consumer brands were falling over themselves to craft pithy takes on the situation, contributions came from unusual Twitter feeds like the Canadian Space Agency, which featured the famous Canadarm asking if it could lend a “helping arm” to the social media service.

We couldn’t help but feel just a little bad for Costco Canada on the day, however. The retail giant’s final tweet (which came way back on Nov. 6, 2019) said that it would no longer be monitoring and responding to conversations on Twitter. Instead, it invited people to visit its Facebook page to “join the conversation.”

Chris Powell