NEW ORLEANS, La. — A person’s dependence on social media is best judged when major networks such as Facebook go down, a new study contends.
Users typically react to social media outages with angry tirades and barbed jokes. However, researchers from Penn State suggest that the level of someone’s rage during a lack of social media access offers a glimpse into how important these platforms have become for some — not just as a tool to socialize and entertain, but as a vital utility like gas and electricity.
In a study of user reactions to a six-hour Facebook outage, the research team found that users of the site flooded rival Twitter with nearly a quarter of a million tweets about the outage, quickly making #facebookdown a top trending topic.
While many comments reflected anger about the situation and others ridiculed Facebook, users also expressed a need to find other social media outlets.
“Most media effects research is about showing people media and seeing how they react, but in this study we see that removing media can actually be more informative,” says study leader Professor Shyam Sundar in a university release.
“This kind of outage provides us an opportunity to see how people reflect on their access to social media, and what we see is that social media has become so important that it’s almost a utility.”
No social media is bad for business
Study authors explain that some social media users, particularly entrepreneurs and businesspeople, rely on social media for their livelihood just as companies rely on other utilities.
“It is not simply that people are dependent on it at a social level,” Sundar continues.
“When these social media sites go down, businesses also will go down. A lot of people engage in business transactions on the whole family of Facebook apps, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. There are newspapers that run completely on Facebook and small businesses and entrepreneurs who have their businesses, like yoga classes that hold lessons through Facebook. So, for some people, it’s a utility because it’s critical to their livelihood.”
Tweets that expressed a desire to find another form of social media actually grew as the outage continued, according to the researchers. More than 29,000 tweets, or 8.8 percent of the total, expressed the users’ desire to find other forms of social media.
Study first author Maggie Liao, a doctoral student in mass communication at Penn State, says the findings suggest that while users might be dependent on social media, it does not mean they are necessarily loyal to one site compared to others.
“What we saw was that as the outage continued, the tweets that talked about the desire to find other social media outlets began to increase,” Liao reports.
“In fact, finding new social media sites was the only topic to steadily increase as time went on during the six-hour outage.”
A chance to ‘detox’
Liao adds another “trending” topic suggested that users were ready to leave social media altogether, also called “social media detox.” Around 35,370 tweets, or a little over 10 percent of the total number of tweets, were focused on social media detox, according to the study.
“Beyond the users’ mockery and their descriptions of their desperate efforts to log on, we think it’s interesting that some people were also asking and talking about social media detox, which ranked No. 4 among all the topics,” Liao notes.
Prof. Sundar says the study suggests that social media platforms need to look at outages as seriously as utility companies view blackouts, which are constantly planning to face outages and preparing communication plans to help consumers navigate the outage.
“This study throws light on the fact that social media leaders need to better prepare their companies to face outages and they also have to better prepare their users for possible outages,” Sundar concludes. “Right now, it doesn’t seem like preparing for outages is even part of their design plan.”
The researchers analyzed 223,815 tweets that used the hashtag #facebookdown during the major Facebook outage, which occurred on Oct. 4, 2021. They relied on Twitter’s application programming interface (API) to access the data.
After removing duplicate tweets, the researchers used a statistical model that allowed them to create a matrix of the 10 topics that emerged from the data on the tweets including complaints, mockery, media reporting, social media detox, log-in desperation, lessons on over-reliance, and business impact.
The researchers presented their findings at the ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’22) in New Orleans.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.