Sunday 17 November 2019

Sasha Brady: This is what happened when I downloaded 10 years of my Facebook data

Stock Image: REUTERS
Stock Image: REUTERS

Sasha Brady

I've been with Facebook for 10 years and in that time I've said and shared a lot of nonsense and Facebook has preserved all of it.

There are certain things you don't want to be reminded of and in the era before social media you could live in a state of ignorant bliss, remembering only the good bits.

You would never have to read word-for-word the seething, ugly break-up messages shared between yourself and an ex. You could forget that you shared obscure song lyrics on your timeline late at night in an effort to seem deep. You could pretend that you weren't the type of person to poke random strangers.

But you were that type person and Facebook knows it.

Granted, you can forget about all the things you said 10 years ago if you don't download your Facebook data but I was curious. I took the hit and spent the evening snowed under a massive data dump, confronted with 10 years of history.

It came after news broke that London-based data firm Cambridge Analytica had improperly accessed information from 50 million Facebook users in the US without their knowledge. Naturally, I became curious about the extent of information Facebook had preserved on me over time.

It's easy for users to access their data. The option to download a copy of your information can be found under the General Account Settings tab. It can take about 15 minutes to download and then you're faced with pretty much your entire Facebook history, all separated into neat little folders.

Going through the files was slightly unnerving, it's like seeing your Big Brother reel after you've been kicked out of the house or going through a diary that you never knew you kept. Facebook stores every detail: the date I joined, the people I poked, the events I attended, the ads I clicked, the number of times I logged in, every call I made, every Messenger conversation I've ever had.

It’s eerie to see how far back my digital footprint stretches.

Accessing every Messenger conversation at the click of the button brought up all sorts of emotions. Some conversations made me laugh, others made me feel sad and others left me feeling confused because I had forgotten who some people were. They’d slipped from my memory over time. There were people whom I haven’t spoken to in years that, at one stage, I felt comfortable enough to discuss with them, in detail, the merits of Skittles over M&Ms at two o’clock in the morning. It’s disturbing to know those conversations exist on Facebook’s server.

Another file contained information on topics that Facebook thinks I'm interested in and shares with advertisers. Some made sense, others not so much. Apparently I'm into literature (yes) sleeping (spot on!), breakfast (necessary), clapping (huh?), contemporary Christian music (absolutely not!) and the Portuguese national football team (this makes no sense to me).

I can't complain. Facebook doesn't have an intelligence of its own. Every bit of information Facebook has on me I’ve handed over willingly. I’ve given my permission every time I like, share, view comment or fill out a quiz so I can correctly guess the number one hits of 1999.

But I lost interest in Facebook a long time ago. I've started to wake up to the fact that Facebook (and social media in general) can be toxic. It's a place where negative emotions engage more powerfully than positive ones and 'fake news' floats freely.

And I've had long-simmering doubts over privacy. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has further increased my doubts.

And it appears that many people feel the same way. According to an opinion poll from Reuters/Ipsos, fewer than half of US users trust Facebook to obey US privacy laws.

Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg apologised for “a breach of trust” in advertisements in placed in newspapers including the Observer in Britain and the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

That said, Zuckerberg has maintained for years that “privacy is no longer a social norm”. And he’s right, the rise of social media has affected a lot of ordinary people’s attitudes to privacy. A dive through my Facebook data proved that to me.

I've contemplated deleting Facebook many times but if I did I would lose the Messenger app and - apart from actually speaking to people in person - it's my main method of communication. And Facebook makes it hard for users to delete their accounts, pushing them towards deactivation instead, thus leaving the door open for them to come crawling back at a later stage.

The last time I posted a status update was over a year ago. These days, the type of notifications I get are from family friends commenting under a photo of me from seven years ago, telling me that red is my colour and asking what I’d like for Christmas this year.

It makes sense to quit but I can’t quite do it, yet.

Online Editors

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