Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
October 30, 2013 8:01 PM

When Important Websites Crash

The political punditry around the healthcare website crashing is laughable. People not getting access to their healthcare is serious business.

This isn't about politics. It's about technology. As the owner of a digital marketing agency, I frequently find myself in conversation with very senior marketing professionals on the topic of IT and technology. The truth is that I am not an IT professional (not even by a long shot), but I do understand the complexity of creating something in a computer language that was never meant to be commercialized the way it has been, and then put it on to the Internet - a channel that was never meant to support these types of media and work channels - with the expectations that once something is "live" it is as final and complete as a printed ad. It is not.

Technology is a very different form of business.

From programming languages to different Web browsers to Internet service providers to hosting solutions and beyond, actually creating something and getting it online is not as simple as it looks. Sure, businesses will tell you all about their guaranteed lack of downtime and how perfect and smart they are about building robust digital experiences that can withstand the pecking, prodding and pushing of millions of consumers, but in the end, there will always be crashes, bugs and more. In fact, if you're in this business, you know that bugs and crashes are not only normal, but it is a part of how the product will evolve, improve and be tweaked even after it is live. There is a reason why brands like Google and others always label their live products as in "beta."

The Internet is a living organism and not a final piece of print.

I read a funny tweet and/or Facebook post the other day (can't remember who said it and I am paraphrasing), but it went something like: amazing how everyone is up in arms and calling the Obama healthcare website a disaster because it keeps on crashing or not working, but when Apple launches a new iPhone and the same thing happens to their website, it's considered a huge success. Apparently, the media pundits on the news networks would much rather give their perspective on why a technology is failing rather than discuss the sheer volume and appetite that the public has and is demanding for these types of services.

Embrace the crashes and the bugs.

There is no doubt that heads are rolling down in Washington. The IT and software development companies responsible for this website are probably neck deep in trouble and pulling all-nighters to get it back up and working at an acceptable level. There is nothing funny about this. While it may be an extreme case of how these launches happen, not a day passes without hearing about how a brand or online experience has been hacked, or went buggy or went down for a myriad of reasons. This past week, Buffer was hacked (you can read more about it here: Buffer security breach has been resolved - here is what you need to know). This is problematic, because Buffer allows its clients to schedule the social media that it would like to share across a myriad of social networks. This social media management tool was suddenly pushing spammy comments on to individual's and corporation's public pages. Within hours the problem was resolved, and the team at Buffer performed what could only be described as a best practice case study in social media crisis communications, in terms of how they resolved and communicated the issues. And, while the impact of having some sketchy posts on a corporate Twitter feed gets less recognition than a stalling healthcare website, we're still faced with the true reality of our digital economy:

Technology is a porous wall.

We see this everyday. From governments spying on other governments to e-commerce sites being hacked and revealing consumer's credit card information to regular glitches and stalls. Who among us doesn't get frustrated when a simple video on YouTube won't play or when wi-fi connectivity in a hotel room is shoddy? If you don't have the education or know-how to understand the many different layers, components and moving parts that keeps this all together, it seems easy to point the finger at one individual, but it's not. Perhaps the easiest way to think about all of this Internet and technology development is to realize that it is one, big MacGyver moment (yes, the television action series from the eighties). What we have is a media and business platform that has been pulled together by hardware and software, much in the same way that Richard Dean Anderson would escape from a perilous situation by stringing together some chicken wire, bubblegum and a shoelace. Of course, technology is more stable and proven than this. Of course, over the years we have been able to produce much more scalable and solid platforms, but it is still very much all based on a very sensitive and fragile system. One that can collapse with just a few lines of bad code or a whole lot of people trying to do the same thing at the same time on a system that was even tested to handle that type of bandwidth (because tests are never reality).

Let's not make excuses.

That's the default position that most people will take. Everything is just an excuse. It should all work perfectly. That is simply not the case with technology. In fact, I would be happy to debate that bugs, crashes, delays and hacks are in fact not mistakes but rather a healthy and normal part of a truly functioning technology. It is as much of a component of what happens in the digital economy as passing gas and burping is to maintaining one's personal health (smells, sounds and all). Perhaps, the opportunity in all of this hacking and crashing coverage is to better educate the mass population that these sorts of things are a natural part of the technological eco-system, whether we like them or not.

It would be interesting to live in a world where known bugs, crashes and more were expected by all, this way we can be surprised and marvel when technology works rather than being disappointed when it doesn't.   

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Dean Shaw
    Mitch Joel

    Anyone who has ever built a site completely understands how the healthcare.gov mess happened. If the criticism wasn't driven purely by politics then it would be laughable. Pundits who know NOTHING about the stars that need to align to launch a any website without even a few bugs should be taken to task. I've never heard demands to shutdown Walmart when their site crashed on Black Friday.

    Thanks for bringing some reason and sanity to the conversation.

  • Posted by Adam Franklin
    Mitch Joel

    Hi Mitch,

    With so many moving parts, I think's incredible that so many websites do launch smoothly in 'beta'. And gee I'd love to see MacGyver at work on a complex website launch!

  • Posted by H3GM
    Mitch Joel

    I find myself agreeing with you about this. While I am not necessarily in favor of the plan itself, the savagery with which the media is going after the website seems unnecessary.

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    Mitch Joel

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    Mitch Joel

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  • Posted by Ewan
    Mitch Joel

    Why users still use to read news papers when in this technological world everything is available on web?

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