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Facebook, Social Media, and Jumping Sharks

Facebook, Social Media, and Jumping Sharks

The problem, as far as most people could tell, originated with Facebook's need to upgrade the domain name servers (DNS) after what appeared to be a routine maintenance update. Ordinarily, this process should be pretty straightforward. However, a configuration file was submitted that had the wrong information in it, one that affected the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) that tells Internet routers where the nameservers for the big boys (.com, .org, etc.) are. While the details of DNS can be byzantine, the upshot was simple: it was the electronic equivalent of locking your keys in your car.

This proved to be a surprisingly accurate metaphor in Facebook's case because over the years the company built more and more of their security infrastructure around the Internet, including the badges used to get into their very buildings. Allegedly, employees couldn't get into the buildings that would have let them change these files because badge readers went to check facebook.com to ascertain that the employees were who they said they were, but locked them out because no authentication could take place.

Technical glitches happen because, for all its supposed simplicity and robustness, the Internet is a complex system. As with the discussion on supply chains in a previous editorial, complexity simply means more points of failure that can cascade.

For Facebook, this lesson came hard on a bad week, with allegations of safety violations, an SEC investigation into potentially fraudulent activity after a whistleblower (and a data scientist) reported discrepancies in financial reporting, and active questions from Congress about how Facebook uses its platform to affect political sentiment. Investors hammered the company as Facebook's stock dropped nearly 5% in the course of the day, initiating a broader sell-off in the tech sector.

Perhaps the most ignominious part of the day came when Facebook had to use rival Twitter to announce to the world what was happening with their platform, which also afflicted the Instagram image sharing platform and the WhatsApp network.

Social media companies have a long history of flaming out in spectacular fashion. While Facebook has held on longer than most, cascading failures are frequently a sign that the system (or the company) is becoming unstable, as all social media outlets exist primarily due to the trust that the members of that outlet have in the company's technical, financial and ethical acumen. Once that trust is lost, it's hard indeed to get back.

The term "jumping the shark" first appeared in conjunction with the TV sitcom Happy Days, in which writers, desperate to stem an eroding audience, had one of the most well-liked of the characters (the Fonz) jump a motorcycle over shark-infested water. The stunt proved to be so widely derided that it served only to accelerate Happy Days' decline, and the show ended shortly thereafter. Since then, "jumping the shark" has become a metaphor for any endeavor that has squandered its trust and goodwill. Perhaps "locking themselves out" may prove this generation's equivalent.

The moral of the story is simple enough. Data and technology are cool, but ultimately software has a social component to it that is ignored at one's peril.

In media res,

Kurt Cagle
Community Editor,
Data Science Central

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