I was thinking about deleting my Facebook account today, something I did four years ago. At that point, I hadn't used it for almost a year, except once: to let a friend know I wasn't using it anymore. I'd already deleted everything I'd ever posted. I'd been deleting my posts regularly for years.
Whenever a social site or cloud service goes down, people will tell you: back up your stuff! Or export it. Or use the "Save Page Now" feature of the Internet Archive. Or click on links hundreds of times, saving every one using your browser's save function. Or print it all to PDF, or to paper. Or run
wget with the
--warc option, or use the webrecorder suite of tools to create web archive files that you can then play back on a web archive server you maintain yourself. Or write your own personal client to interface with social media services via their APIs and then save all of your outgoing messages before you send them, like a pre-computer business agent keeping carbons. Or recognize that all is flux and leave your data to the whims of time and third-party data retention policies. Posting on social media can feel like posting on the boarded up exterior of a condemned building without knowing when it's going to implode.
I was taking classes in archival studies when I first started to use Facebook regularly, around 2010. I made a lazy attempt to apply records management principles to my posts: every few months I'd use the Facebook-provided "archive" option to export my data, then about a week later I'd delete everything that was part of that export. That way I could avoid leaving everything up "forever" and I could avoid downloading the same data twice.
Facebook's idea of an archive wasn't complete in the sense of having literally all of my data, but the first few iterations were good enough. I wanted my own posts, the comments on those posts, the URLs of the links I shared, and copies of the photos I posted. I wanted the photos less for the photos themselves1 than for their context within my feed: when I posted them, how I described them. That's what more or less came with the first exports.
This cycle of post, share, export, delete worked well enough until I noticed that the Facebook archive had become a lot less useful. At some point they stopped including comments from other people on my posts, and stopped including the URLs of some of the links I shared. In my more charitable moments, I've wondered if this was a side effect of Facebook becoming either more careful or more risk averse with user data. The official Facebook archive is a download of "your data"; by definition, comments left by other people are not "your" data. But I didn't come up with a plausible explanation for the missing shared links. Maybe if Facebook was a more responsive organization I'd have filed a bug report. (They may have eventually fixed the issue.)
The decline of the Facebook archive put me in a bind: I could either live with preserving a less useful set of exported data or I could come up with a more complex preservation strategy. For the next few years I did neither. I grumbled about the changes, left all my Facebook activity online, and told myself I'd come up with something eventually. And eventually I did: the strategy was to crawl my account manually, once, and then delete everything, including the account itself.
Despite everything I hated about the platform, I actually liked using Facebook for most of the period I was active. It wasn't blogging, the quasi-social media format I'd started out with when I moved beyond passively reading news and journal articles online, but almost all the bloggers I knew had given up by then for a combination of short posting platforms and published work. That's part of how I ended up on Facebook. But the algorithmic feed eventually became too much. I was one of the last chronological hold outs among my friends.
I've tried a few times to find, in my Facebook archive, a discussion I remember having about the potential of the non-chronological feed to shape what we see online in ways that may involve more conscious intent than we usually attribute to an algorithm. But I haven't been able to find it. I may have left it in the comments on someone else's post. My concern, which was not an original one, was that once you remove a relatively transparent organizing principle, like reverse chronology, you open the door to everything from randomness to deliberate manipulation. If you once saw all the links your friends posted in order, and those links were your main source of information about the world, what would you do if your feed started showing only a subset of those links? What if that subset was highly skewed? Again, I am not claiming any great insight here, or even to have seen signs that my feed was being manipulated at the time, though I remember a few of us speculating about whether Facebook would downrank links to articles that were critical of Facebook. These are scattered conversations I remember having around the time the algorithmic feed came about, years before the Brexit vote and the 2016 U.S. elections.
In the end, what pushed me off of Facebook was the combined effect of learning more about the company's political activities and the way the feed intersected with my life more personally. Like a lot of people my age, especially people who grew up without using the social internet much when they were younger, I've had the repeated experience of losing touch with people. The summer ends, you graduate, you move, you get a new job, you say you'll write, and then no one actually does. Sometimes losing touch felt like a big deal, often it was just part of life.
Being on Facebook changed all that because it was so easy to keep up with people without having to manage a contact list or remember to schedule a time to meet. Asynchronicity meant you didn't even have to post often or check in often, you just had to do a little clicking and scrolling. Do Facebook posts skew towards what people are willing to reveal about themselves in semi-public? Yes, of course. But it's not like people aren't managing their self-presentation in other contexts. To me the difference was less between having a phone call with a close friend and seeing a Facebook post and more between seeing a Facebook post and running into someone twenty years later.
But over time I just couldn't deal with the feed anymore: the way it skewed towards "engagement"; the way it skewed towards the more frequent posters irrespective of how well I knew them; the way I found myself spending more and more time tracking down the posts from closer friends who, I often learned, had been posting the whole time but without all of their posts surfacing in my feed; the regular changes to the interface that never seemed to result in anything that could improve my own experience of the feed; the sheer amount of links people would post to thinly sourced and often historically inaccurate sites that I could never figure out how to block completely ("show me less" isn't "never show again"); and the seemingly random approach to people sharing personal tragedies. I would see in my feed people I didn't know offer condolences to people I'd never met, but I never saw a friend post about a death in his family, something I learned about later in a different forum, then found on Facebook by digging back through weeks. When a different friend ended up in the hospital with a serious condition, my feed didn't show all of his updates regularly, and when I checked his wall for new posts, Facebook kept helpfully hiding ones I'd seen before, making it difficult to be sure of what I had and hadn't seen. "Wouldn't you like to see this post from four months ago that did some good numbers?" No, Facebook, I want to see if my friend has regained consciousness.
I'd started using Facebook in the way Facebook marketed itself: to connect with friends. Writing that now, I'm still surprised at how well that went for a while. By the time I quit, using Facebook felt more like a job where Facebook was the intranet and you were always fighting it in some way to get to whatever it was you were trying to do. I knew there would be a cost to leaving, a return to mostly losing touch with a lot of people. But I'd come to resent the constant and overt mediation, the skew of the feed, and the feeling of being trapped by the poor quality "archive" that had stopped me from my old archive and delete routine. So at the end of 2016, I came up with a plan.
In my work as an archivist, I'd dabbled in web archiving and had become familiar with the service known then as webrecorder (now Conifer2). Unlike most other crawling tools, the tools behind webrecorder made it possible to capture dynamic interactions like scrolling through a Facebook feed while repeatedly clicking on the 'see more' links required to expand the page or to show additional comments. I'd seen demos of people using it to capture social media in institutional archives contexts. I figured I could do that too, just for myself.
This is not meant to be a technical blog post, so I'm going to leave out most of the details. But here is what I did. I installed the webrecorder tools on my own computer rather than use the third-party web service. I knew I'd need to log in to Facebook and I didn't want to expose my credentials to anyone else. Then I downloaded one last Facebook "archive" to serve as a complete list of all of my posts. And then I systematically opened up every post in the webrecorder-ed browser and clicked to expand every comment. I'd built up 2-3 years of "unarchived" posts by that point; it took a whole weekend to get through everything. Towards the end, I was getting prompted repeatedly to log back in and fill out captchas along the way, slowing things down even more. But I got through it.
Once I was satisfied that I'd gotten all of my posts, I launched a web archives playback application just to make sure I'd be able to read them again. The tools were remarkably effective. Almost five years later, I can still replay the pages, complete with vintage 2016 display ads. Archives in hand, I was ready to delete.
Facebook at the time provided a central activity log, a way to track not just your posts but also your comments, likes, photos, friend requests. I went through my log and deleted everything: every comment, every post, every like. I left only the friendships. I could have skipped all of those steps and just deleted my account, trusting that Facebook would take care of the remaining deletions. But I didn't trust Facebook. I wanted every delete to be on record.
I let my account sit for a while, empty. I've quit enough things to which I soon returned that I didn't want to make a dramatic exit only to come right back. Instead I logged out for a week, two weeks, a month. Somewhere along the way I logged in to find a question from a friend about how I was doing. I appreciated the concern, explained how quitting was improving my life, left the post up for a couple of weeks, then came back and deleted that too. Towards the end of a year of not using Facebook, I got a message implying someone had tried to log into my account, and would I come back and change my password? I changed the password, took one more day to think about the account, then came back and deleted it.
I don't know what the account deletion process is like today but in 2017 it encapsulated everything I'd come to dislike about Facebook: the dark patterns, the blatant manipulation, the attempt to leverage personal relationships for corporate gain. I wish I'd been recording my deletion session because I don't remember all the details now. Towards the end of the form filling and the "are you sure?" questions, Facebook started showing me pictures of friends with messages like "Aren't you going to miss hearing from them? Are you sure you really want to leave?" And all I could think of were all the steps that had brought me to that point and how I'd made exactly the right decision.