Reuben Binns

Researching Personal Data

Category Archives: facebook

Experiments in partial Facebook secession

If Facebook were a state, it would be the third most populated in the world, just ahead of the USA and behind India. Like the former Soviet Union, which occupied the same third place slot at its peak, the state of Facebook rules over a geographically and culturally diverse citizenry. And like the USSR in 1990, this disparate social network may be at the beginning of its decline.

I’ll resist the urge to draw further fatuous parrallels – between, say, Stalin’s centralised planning and Zuckerburg’s centralised business model, or Gorbachev’s collapsing economy and the social network’s dismal performance on the stock market – fun as they might be. There are early signs of Facebook’s eventual dissolution, cracks which have appeared over the last six months. Facebook lost 10 million US visitors in the last year. Monthly visits in Europe are down. Its incredible international growth rate is beginning to plateau. And ‘Home’, the Facebook-smeared Android smartphone interface, appears to have flopped.

I’m just one data-point in all this, but I’ve been quietly engineering my own secession from Facebook over the last few weeks. I won’t go over some of the good reasons to leave Facebook (Paul Bernal has eloquently outlined ten of them already). I’ve always been a reluctant user, but equally reluctant to leave. Enough of my personal (and worryingly, professional) communication seems to come through Facebook that leaving altogether doesn’t seem to be an option, yet. Instead, I’ve taken a less drastic approach in the interim, which means I should never have to log in to Facebook again (except, perhaps, to delete my account).

  • Exported (almost) all my data
  • Removed (almost) all the information from my account.
  • Deleted the Facebook and Facebook Messenger apps from my smartphone and tablet.
  • Set up RSS feeds for pages.
  • Set email notifications for group posts and events.
  • Exported all my friend’s birthdays into a calendar, and set up a weekly update of upcoming birthdays.
  • Finally, exported all my friend’s email addresses, so I can communicate via email instead. This was the hardest one. I had to sign up to Yahoo Mail (the only service Facebook will allow email imports into), and then run a scraping script on a html page to get them into a CSV format, before finally importing that into my email contacts. Thanks to @joincamp for the guide.

This way, I still get to hear about the important stuff, without exposing my eyeballs, or much of my data, to Facebook. It’s also given me the chance to experiment with other means of personal communication. Email feels very personal again. I’m working on my telephone manner. Postcards are also fun.

Help! My friend has turned into a social media marketing page.

I had a friend who became a marketing channel. Or rather, I had a friend whose personal online profile has now been turned into a social media marketing page for a new business venture. According to Facebook’s ‘See Friendship’ feature, I have been ‘friends’ with this person / entity since November 2008. I can’t be sure who he/she/it used to be before undergoing this incorporeal incorporation. Surgical editing of their profile timeline has removed most of its congenital human appendages, leaving an almost convincing post-op commercial presence.

Why did this happen? Twitter-savvy careers advisors and professional networking experts have long been encouraging recession-era graduates to leverage their personal networks for professional gain. In a time where social media interns get paid (or more often, don’t get paid) to generate ever more Likes and Followers, ‘cashing in’ one’s pre-existing social network may seem like a logical shortcut to building an ‘audience’ for your brand.

If I were feeling mean, I could report this friend of mine for violation of Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy, which insists that maintaining a profile for anything other than an individual person is a violation of their Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. One might think one reason for such a rule is to prevent precisely this kind of practice. The possibility that your friends might at any time turn themselves into a brand, and you, by extension, into a potential customer, seems more like a bug than a feature.

But I suspect Facebook’s real names policy has more to do with their crusade against anonymity than moral repugnance regarding the commodification of friendship. In fact, they provide an official ‘Migration Tool‘ by which you can turn your personal profile into a bona-fide business page, converting your friends into Likes. (Quite why my former friend stopped short of this final stage, forgoing legal recognition of their transformation, I do not know.) Much like U.S. jurisprudence has granted corporations the status of people, so Facebook’s policy appears to grant people official status as marketing channels.

As it stands, I’m unsure how to react to the changes my friend has undergone. I feel queasy about marketing pages on Facebook even when they are ‘born’ that way; being encouraged to make public displays of affection towards brands and products, even when I feel some affinity towards them, irks me. Should I ‘un-friend’ this virtual presence? I have no interest in the product it is trying to sell. But I can’t help thinking that somewhere beneath the promotional photographs, product offers and job opportunities, there is a ghost in the machine; the remains of a ‘real’ personal profile, with hilarious status updates, holiday pictures, and friendships which might, one day, be brought back to life.