What's to be learned from Tumblr's Outage by Anyone Involved in Social Media

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Full disclosure: I don’t have a Tumblr account, I wasn’t affected by yesterday’s almost full-day outage in any capacity – but it seemed that one out of every four tweets in my stream was at first, about how the world was ending because Tumblr was down – Then, all about defining what “be right back” meant, then finally all about “this is ridiculous, where the hell is Tumblr, it’s no longer funny, now we’re pissed, we can’t get to our content!”

And to be honest, I knew 100% that the comments/tweets/blogs would happen exactly like I wrote them above in exactly that same order, from the second I realized (along with the rest of the Internet) that Tumblr’s problem wasn’t just a simple “reboot and we’ll be fine” error.


Because I’d been there before. Welcome to History, boys and girls.

Tumblr, just like Facebook, just like Twitter, just like wordpress.com (not a blog on your own site/server running WordPress, but your blog hosted by the wordpress servers,) just like MySpace, (follow me as I go back in time, how many do you recognize?) just like Blogger, just like Friendster, just like Upoc, just like SixDegrees, and to my point, when I was there – Yes… Just like America Online (not AOL, but before that… America Online – Think dial-up modems, think 1996, think $2.95 an hour.)

Back when I was an editor in my first job out of Grad School, helping to create the first iteration of the online newsroom at America Online in Vienna, VA, back when all this stuff was new, back in the summer of 1996, AOL crashed.

We’d seen that before, so for us content drones, it was an excuse for a smoke break. But the difference this time was palpable – We came back from our nicotine, and America Online was still down. That, ten minutes later? That was something new.

It was, I believe, the summer of ’96, but I could be wrong. We didn’t know what was up, but we knew something was off. So we walked around the building. We went outside and hung out. Then we saw the most interesting thing start to happen, and I’ll never forget it:

A few cars came screaming into the parking lot (remember, it was already evening,) didn’t park, but pulled up to the front. One person got out of each car, and ran into the building.

Twenty minutes later, the scene repeated, but the cars were one level nicer.

A half hour or so later, the same thing, but again, more expensive cars. By the time we realized what was going on, Ferraris and Lamborghinis were pulling into the parking lot – and we realized – The outage wasn’t normal, it was major, and they’d gone up the food chain – Each time people who’d been with AOL just a bit longer than the previous people were called in, the cars were a bit nicer. A Ferrari? AOL was in trouble. A Lamborghini? Someone there since day one, who’d cashed in a lot of options, was roused out of bed. Uh oh.

Fast forward 22 hours, and AOL was fixed, and people were back online all over the world – But it was a major wake-up call – By that time, millions of people took AOL for granted, as much as they did a dial tone. And when there was no dial tone, it was shocking, to say the least.

Think about it, though – Then, just a few million people freaked out – for 99% of them, not because they lost their content, but simply because they couldn’t get online. Just because they couldn’t get online.

Fast forward to today – The Twittersphere was alive with thousands upon thousands of Tweets – “I can’t get to my content! I can’t get to all that I’ve posted in the past!”

To which I say, those who don’t understand history, are doomed to repeat it.

Let’s make this clear – To those who were freaking because all their content they’ve posted on Tumblr wasn’t available – I say this – It wasn’t your content to begin with.

Sure, you posted it, so yeah, you found it/wrote it/blogged it/photographed it – So yes, you “created it,” in a way, and in some old-school legal sense, sure – it’s yours. But you know what? Here’s a secret: It’s really not.

Why? Because you chose to post/store/share it on a free service. And by doing so, you essentially said “Yeah, this is easy, so I’ll do it, but if it goes down, or goes away, or goes bankrupt, or goes hacked, I accept that I’ll never see it again.” Yet, you still did it.

Then it went down, and you freaked.

If your content isn’t stored/shared/promoted on your server, or a server you pay for by way of a contract, you have no right to complain if it goes away.

And here’s what I’m really getting at:

How many of you are responsible for your or your client’s (even worse if it’s your client’s) Facebook fan page?

How about their Twitter account?

What would happen if Facebook decided you did something wrong? Or Twitter went down, or pulled your account?

Do you have a backup plan? Do you know who your fans, followers, readers, or subscribers are, and have an alternate way to contact them?

Don’t you think you should?

Yesterday’s Tumblr outage should be seen, by anyone involved in this space, as a wake up call. We should understand that unless we’re posting on servers or computers or systems that we either pay for or own, our content is not truly our own. And if it all went away, we’d be in a world of hurt.

Think about what happend yesterday to Tumblr, and learn from it, and take the appropriate steps to make sure you own/have backups of your own content, have alternate ways to reach your fans, and can recover from such a disaster. Because today it was just Tumblr.

Tomorrow, it could be the Facebook Fan page in which you’ve invested the past two years. And then what would you do?

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