Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp Outage: What to Do When Your Online Life Vanishes

It seemed like life was unlivable on Monday.

For more than five hours, Facebook Inc.’s FB -4.89% platforms—including Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook proper—were offline and unavailable to users. Trying to access feeds or messaging chains, all you’d see were Couldn’t Refresh Feed. Couldn’t Load Activity. Sorry, something went wrong. Connecting…

Want to lose yourself in a stream of images of friends and family? Dust off the “1995 Family Trip to Walley World” album. Need to ask neighborhood moms about the best diaper cream? Check the bulletin board at the YMCA. Hope to send messages to that friend group? I heard tin cans and strings work great.

The outage came on the heels of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files, a series of stories that have revealed the impact of the social network on society, democracy, children and more. On Sunday evening, less than 24 hours before the outage, the whistleblower who provided documents that formed the foundation of the series came forward publicly.

But those who might not be paying attention to our series, or watching C-Span for must-see congressional antitrust hearings, got the point clearer than ever from Monday’s outage: One giant tech company controls the bulk of our online social lives.

Just look at how much of our data and personal connections run through Mark Zuckerberg’s empire. This isn’t about missing a few cute cat photos or the latest celebrity gossip: For many, the bulk of their interpersonal communication—essential contact lists, chats and groups—is maintained in channels controlled by Facebook Inc.

The Great Social Outage of 2021 isn’t without its lessons. Not only can we better prepare ourselves for the next one, but we can also identify and manage where our data lives, and spread the love of our personal networks across more services. Join me in the following steps.

#1 Keep Your Own Contacts

Facebook has become the telephone book (and birthday calendar) of the Internet. It’s time to stop depending on someone’s Facebook or Instagram profile as a resource of information. Instead, we should refresh and maintain our own contact databases with the phone numbers and email addresses of people we care about. Perhaps you already do this, but there are lots of teens who depend on Insta DMs.

Now, I realize there’s some irony in recommending this option because the solutions tend to rely on Apple, Microsoft MSFT -2.07% and Google—three even bigger tech giants—and the cloud, that mysterious invisible thing that failed for Facebook. But on an iPhone, when you sync contacts using Apple’s iCloud, or with Microsoft or Google, you can generally access important contact info, even if there’s an outage or your device has no internet access.

Another thing we should all do now that Facebook is back online: Download our Facebook data, including a list of Facebook friends—this might include alternative contact information if they have listed it. (Here’s the company’s instructions.) You can do the same for Instagram and WhatsApp. Even offline, I was able to at least check out my WhatsApp chats and contacts and access certain information including phone numbers.

#2 Bring Back Email and Texting

There’s a lot wrong with those ancient forms of communication, the email and text message, but at least they are reliable private messaging alternatives. Yes, Gmail can occasionally go down, but most people I know have at least two email addresses, and you can always make extra.

The phone-number part is more crucial to our messaging future. The string of 10 numbers has become our main usernames across other messaging apps, including Signal. Instead of creating specific usernames, the phone number allows you to log in and then see if you know others on the service.

This message appeared when we tried to visit facebook.com on Monday.

Photo: Facebook

This is a good moment to set up alternative messaging apps, and not only to diversify where you communicate. For one thing, experts recommend Signal because it’s considered more secure and private.

For larger group chats, one up-and-coming service is Discord. While once primarily for gamers, it’s expanded to host groups with a range of interests. I spoke to one mother on Monday who said she felt lost without Facebook Groups, where she usually discusses her daughter’s medical condition. She said she found similar parent groups on Discord that she would try.

#3 Take Your Own Breaks

Here comes the totally cliché part of the social-media column, the part where I impart the true lesson of the outage: Maybe it’s time to spend less time on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, and more time doing, well, anything else.

This outage might actually be the kick in the butt I needed. I had been contemplating my own social-media vacation as I’ve noticed myself spending too much time aimlessly scrolling. My WSJ colleagues’ recent reporting on Facebook Inc. was a nice reminder to revisit some of the goals I had previously set for myself. I suggest trying out your smartphone’s own time-limitation features (Apple has Screen Time, Google has its Digital Wellbeing controls.)

Or, you know, hope for the next big outage.

—For more WSJ Technology analysis, reviews, advice and headlines, sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8