If you've ever wondered what the world looked like without Facebook and Instagram, now you know. Or, at least, what the world looked like without photos of "cat," or "people standing by a tree," or "food." Those descriptions were exactly what most people saw in place of photos on both platforms during an outage last Wednesday that affected users worldwide.

Needless to say, people freaked out.

There's probably a larger lesson here about our obsession with social media networks in general, and how an outage like this is apparently the Armageddon scenario for a lot of people, who should probably consider stepping away from their Facebook news feed for a little while.

Facebook is using machine learning to tag your photos

That lesson will have to wait, because this particular outage revealed some very interesting things about how good Facebook and Instagram are at machine learning and artificial intelligence (A.I.), and using it to learn everything about us.

First, though, Facebook says the outage was due to an error during a "routine maintenance operation," which caused images and a few other features to break across all of the company's apps and platforms (including Instagram and WhatsApp.) 

Still, what is even more interesting than the world without photos is what was left behind.

It didn't take long for users to notice that in place of photos was the metadata that search engines and visually impaired assistive technologies use to parse what is in a photo.

Facebook is getting really good at A.I.

It probably comes as no surprise that Facebook (which owns Instagram) is really, really good at figuring out what is in a photo, but, judging by the response online, a lot of people had no idea it's that good.

In fact, while most of us probably have a pretty good understanding that Facebook is super interested in everything we share, we never really think about the fact that it is basically watching everything we do, or that it has a vested interest in knowing even what is in the photos we post.

That is, after all, exactly how the company knows who you are and what you care about.

I doubt it comes as a surprise to anyone that knowing what you care about is how Facebook serves you relevant ads. Lots and lots of ads. 

But what surprised many on the internet is just how good Facebook's A.I.-powered image recognition really is. Instead of photos, many of you instead saw them replaced by text tags saying things like "Image may contain: people next to a tree."

Here's why it matters

In fairness, Facebook doesn't only create these tags for its own purposes. Those tags are also important for search engines or for apps that read webpages for people with visual impairments.

That's a legitimate reason for the company to improve its ability to interpret your photos: for people who can't see them on their own. In fact, if the company left it up to users to identify what's in their photos, very few would do so other than tagging a few friends.

I think what's more shocking to many people is exactly how good Facebook is at knowing what is in the photos you share. Most of us haven't considered the privacy implications of the company that already knows more about you than many of the people closest to you also being able to understand the photos we post.

What it means for your business

If you're a business owner, there is an important lesson here. Clearly, the fact that Facebook has gotten this good at A.I. means that if you're an advertiser, you benefit from technology that better understands your potential customers.

While it's hard to ignore the potential of a platform like Facebook for reaching your customers, there is also a risk when that platform suffers an outage of this scope and size. In fact, there's always a risk when you build your business primarily on someone else's platform.

Which leads to another lesson for businesses to consider, especially as Facebook continues to experience increased pressure from regulators and lawmakers. Your business could be at risk of collateral backlash as privacy concerns grow larger and consumers begin to realize the true scope of Facebook's intrusion into their daily lives.

If anything, maybe this most recent outage--and the metaphorical "pulling back the curtain"--will help us think a little harder about what's going on with our information back there.

Published on: Jul 9, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.