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Friday, August 7, 2009

At a Loss for Words: The Day Facebook, Twitter Crashed

By Monica Hesse

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

What happened Thursday, in 140 characters: Twitter went down. Facebook went down. People panicked, unused to not oversharing minutiae of life. Twitter back up. Facebook back up. Phew.

At 9 a.m., millions of users of found themselves unable to access the microblogging Web site, the modern version of the telephone party line through which more than 40 million people announce what they are doing, reading, eating and thinking at any given moment. Twitter has been used for on-the-ground reports from protests in Tehran and, more recently, by Paula Abdul, who announced her resignation from "American Idol" via her Twitter feed.

Undaunted, the rejected Twitterers trooped to, the social networking site that has more than 200 million users, which has "status updates" that mimic Twitter feeds. But before users could begin to type, "Is sad that Twitter is down," a terrible and panic-inducing discovery: Facebook was down, too.

The two companies offered answers:

"On this otherwise happy Thursday morning, Twitter is the target of a denial-of-service attack," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote on the official Twitter blog. "Attacks such as this are malicious efforts orchestrated to disrupt and make unavailable services such as . . . Twitter for intended customers or users. We are defending against this attack now."

Kathleen Loughlin, a spokeswoman for Facebook, also cited a denial-of-service attack, which she said "resulted in degraded service for some users." She added that no user data were at risk during the attack and promised that Facebook was "continuing to monitor the situation to ensure that users have the fast and reliable experience they've come to expect from Facebook."

Ben Rushlo, director of Internet technologies at Keynote, a Web site-monitoring firm in San Mateo, Calif., called the attack "the largest and most extensive outage" the company has tracked against a social networking site. "I haven't seen anything quite this significant on a major site," Rushlo said.

Neither company offered explanations for the attacks, which occur when a person or group of people target a Web site for the purpose of making a site dysfunctional for its intended users.

And lest the Twitter-less and Facebook-less consider blogging their grievances, blog host LiveJournal was down, too, blaming another denial-of-service attack. It was not clear where these attacks originated or whether the three attacks were related.

It was almost like social networking had died. Or had a heart attack, at least. For several hours, millions of users were catapulted back to the dark, informationless days of 2003, before such pertinent information as what Ashton Kutcher had for a snack became readily available, before it was possible for people to take a simple quiz to learn which "Twilight" character or dog breed they were most like.

For most of the morning, access to these sites remained spotty. The sole word on the blog -- created just to inform people of the site's functionality -- was "Yes."

Some people classified the meltdown as a non-story, and an easily mockable one at that: "As an avid non-user," one blogger wrote, "I yawned when I heard the news."

It wasn't until the sites became accessible again, later in the afternoon, that the true magnitude of the moment became apparent. Twitterers and Facebookers flocked back to their online homes, posting updates revealing how much they felt they'd missed in the day without social networks.

"Director John Hughes died today and I didn't know because Twitter was down," a user called kristenthomson tweeted shortly after the site was functioning again. "Do I have to go back to watching the news to get my news?"

Staff writers Brian Krebs and Cecilia Kang contributed to this report.

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