We mail, we blog, we twitter. Yet, it is on mornings like that of August 6, that we stop taking for granted how dependent we are on technology. I’m talking about the social network meltdown, of course. As several sites were attacked, Twitter went down due to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack leaving millions of users without the ability to communicate in bite-sized pieces.
DDoS is the technological equivalent of a human brain freeze. A teller at a bank counter can easily process one or two customers’ transactions at a time. Two or three hundred simultaneous customers, however, may lead to extreme confusion. For the sake of analogy let’s say this leads to unconsciousness, making it impossible for any more customers to be served. This essentially is what happened to applications in the online social networking world last Thursday. Malicious attackers bombarded websites from different locations (thus the word distributed) with seemingly legitimate messages causing some of them to slow down, and knocking others like Twitter out cold. Twitterers using the website, their mobiles or other means weren’t able to tweet as well. It was a brief, complete blackout.
The attacks that shook the online world this time around are reported to have political motives. Mashable.com reported that social networking sites including Facebook, Google and Twitter might well have been attacked to silence just one person - a blogger in the republic of Georgia, underscoring the role these sites play as a medium of expression. This wasn’t the first time Twitter was down, either. Earlier this year, a cracker got control of Twitter accounts giving him the ability to impersonate, among others, President Obama. Wonder what would have happened if that attack was politically motivated!
Motives notwithstanding, reactions to the outage were varied. Given the duration of Thursday’s attack, we were far from a Die Hard 4.0 like situation of technology-initiated anarchy. Prem Panicker, a journalist by profession and a twitterer known for his live tweets on cricket says, “I heard about the outage on Twitter and followed it on Twitter. So — what outage?”. For most casual users, it was merely a temporary loss of another source of information. At the other end of the spectrum, for those whose social lives are conducted online in a large part, this was akin to being marooned on an island. Given the entangled nature of the web, India was also affected by the turmoil as ‘tweeple’ from across the country faced issues in logging in to Twitter. Netra Parikh, a popular twitterer, thought at first that her internet connection was down. “When I realised that Twitter was not working, I felt like I ran out of oxygen” she recalls. “I immediately went to Facebook and posted that Twitter is down. I received close to 60 messages within the hour.”
The generation with probably the shortest attention span was left without its newest toy. We didn’t just miss out on opportunities to know what others were doing, browsing or eating. We also got a taste of what we take for granted in the otherwise stable world of technology. As the social web saw cracks erupt that fateful Thursday morning, the blackout of one of the world’s most used services reinforced the reality of the virtual world in our lives. We realised that we have come a long way from a few years ago — a time when social networking websites were the flavours of the season and ‘nice-to-haves’; a time when a new website mushroomed every few weeks and our e-mails reminded us of not having added a stranger as a friend on an unknown social network.
Today, we are at a stage where these networks are an integral part of keeping in touch with friends and family, an effective marketing tool and a way of killing time. Twitter itself isn’t limited to sharing information about the weather or pictures of funny cats. Brick and mortar businesses rely on it to reach their newest consumers. Bloggers, celebrities and politicians have all leveraged Twitter’s enormous reach to rival established modes of communication. In this context, downtime today costs money and service providers are answerable to why even their ‘free’ services are down or slower than usual.
On a lighter note, the outage generated a lot of fodder for humour in the media. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel said, ‘For two hours this morning (Thursday) no one could find out what breakfast cereal Ashton Kutcher was eating.’ taking a dig at the world’s most popular Twitterer. Another user commented on a CNN website, “Horrors! People will have to communicate face to face!” Hopefully, it won’t come to that just yet.
Tuesday, August 11
The silence heard around the world
This piece of mine about the recent Twitter outage was published in the Indian Express today.