What It’s Like to Wallow in Your Own Facebook Data

For the past 13 years, I’ve given the platform my photos, my videos, my likes, and untold hours of my time. Sifting through it all was amusing and surprising—and weirdly sad.

Nicolas Ortega

I found my way to the Download Your Information tool in late March, soon after a whistle-blower revealed that the political-consulting firm Cambridge Analytica had gathered information about tens of millions of Facebook users. The tool, which Mark Zuckerberg referenced several times in his testimony to Congress in April, is tucked away in Facebook’s account settings. It allows users to access extensive archives of their own content, delivered by Zip file, giving a nod to demands for greater corporate transparency and helping the company satisfy new data-protection requirements in the European Union. It also offers an opportunity to view oneself through the eyes of Facebook’s partners, researchers, advertisers, and algorithms, in an act of reverse surveillance.

My own download held the usual digital flotsam—not all the information I had ever volunteered to the platform, but a lot of it: date of birth, phone number, schools. There were IP addresses from every time I’d signed on since 2009 (though I’ve had an account since 2005). There was a list of advertising topics for which I could be targeted––some accurate, some more like divination than data science—alongside content I’d created: chat transcripts, event listings, photographs, videos.

I was startled to find dozens of videos I had deleted before posting or sharing with friends, an embarrassment of outtakes. There I was, lower-resolution and smoother-skinned, staring at the computer camera and adjusting my bangs, looking for a good angle from my dorm room, my parents’ kitchen, a temp job. It was like watching B-roll for a documentary about my insecurities. (Facebook has since announced that the inclusion of deleted videos was the result of a bug, and said it was planning to discard the data from its servers.) The videos were jarring to discover—and suggested questionable data-retention practices at Facebook—but they were not entirely unwelcome. In an era of personal brands and social-media curation, I was amused, and a little wistful, to have a realistic glimpse of what I had been like as an awkward college student.

The download also included a reverse-chronologically organized list of “friends,” everyone I had connected to—and disconnected from—on the platform. Scrolling through it, I could see the contours of a life taking shape. I’d made an initial flurry of connections around the time I first created an account, the summer before I left for college: relatives and elementary-school friends along with summer-camp crushes and future classmates. At the top of the list were the solutions engineers and CrossFit evangelists I’d met when I’d moved out West to work in tech. It was like looking at the guest list for a party I would never throw.

Download Your Information didn’t offer a coherent narrative. Instead, it presented a cascade of references, but few of the referents. Under “Timeline,” I found comments left by friends on the feature formerly known as the “wall,” written with the candor of people who had not yet heard about Edward Snowden or the ad-tech industry. But because the Facebook download displayed them without links to the original post or images, the comments were also completely decontextualized. “Digging the bonnet,” a dorm hallmate posted in 2005. What bonnet? I wondered, full of remorse. “Shake that thing and violate it,” a friend wrote a year later. What thing?

Reading through this archive recalled a moment when time spent online was less anxious, less fraught—a time when Facebook was a website, not a platform; a novelty, not a conglomerate; a lark or procrastination tool, not a threat to democracy. Personalization was the work of the user, not the algorithm––and the dangers of privately controlled, algorithmically determined information flows would have seemed, to me, like the stuff of late-night stoner speculation. These ancient posts were a throwback to a time when nobody knew the name of Facebook’s founder. Why should we have? My peers and I saw the website, like the other social networks we had played with—Xanga, LiveJournal, Friendster, Myspace—as a toy with a shelf life. Eventually it would be phased out, disposed of. We could have probably been forgiven for being a little naive.

Over the next few days, I found myself returning to the download folder, unceremoniously labeled “facebook–annawiener,” to sift through conversations and grainy digital photographs. I am a sentimental person. I hold on to things far past their emotional shelf life. I still have a small card, delivered with a bouquet of flowers, from a high-school boyfriend, written in the florist’s scrawl and seeking forgiveness for a grievance I no longer remember. Reading through Facebook Messenger transcripts from 2011 was not especially compelling, but I was glad, in a vague way, to see them.

At 31, I’ve spent a significant portion of my life in front of computers. A beige, boxy Macintosh Classic featured prominently in my childhood; I learned how to manipulate a mouse before I learned how to read. From a young age, I took the internet for granted. Still, the time I spend online has never struck me as worthy of documentation. Instead, I consider it time not just wasted but lost, a regrettable, years-long black hole.

The data download was a time capsule of sorts, a rare record of time spent digitally. But as I returned to the folder, a familiar sense of dread crept in. If anything, Download Your Information is a consolation prize offered to those of us on the losing end of surveillance capitalism. The folder underscored some of social media’s most unappealing qualities: the distortion of a natural, human experience of time, and an insistence on never quite letting things go.

In the 13 years that I have had a Facebook account, I have deactivated it 31 times (I got this number, too, from the data download). I dislike Facebook, both the platform and the corporate ethos. I am put off by the company’s coyness around its role in the media ecosystem, and by the way some Facebook employees talk about their employer, as if one of the most valuable companies in the world is just a misunderstood do-gooder. I do not even find the website pleasing, with its bland, homogeneous design, corny animations, and attempts to encourage nostalgia at scale. I never quite know what to do on it. I don’t have a great reason for sticking around, aside from the nagging feeling that I might miss out.

For all the bittersweet charm they offer, Facebook’s downloadable user-data packets are artifacts of corporate cowardice. The information they provide is a slapdash, selective assortment of digital ephemera. It is by no means a complete record of the company’s data-collection practices; Facebook itself has said as much. The data-analytics software that facilitates the collection and aggregation of user information is sophisticated—it is likely keeping track of the sort of metrics that have become standard across the industry, such as the pathways users take across the site and the app; what is clicked, and when; and how frequently a user searches for a name or keyword. My data download contained no traces of this sophistication. In the past, the company has had neither a legal imperative nor a business incentive to tell users where (and for how long) data are stored––or who at Facebook has permission to access it, and to what ends. As for the company’s third-party partners, Facebook policy states that there are “strict restrictions” on how they can use information. (Facebook has also said that it is in the process of making changes to its platform that “will continue to enable developers to create social experiences, while protecting people’s information.”)

Still, as I rifled through all these intimacies—transcripts and photographs; evidence of heartbreaks and petty rivalries; a slurry of insecurities, bad jokes, and raw emotional output—I wanted to feel angrier than I did. But after a while, I no longer felt spied on. I didn’t even feel especially nostalgic. I just felt sad. Here was the stuff of a life, and I had given it away to the internet—much of it would likely be stored on Facebook’s servers ad infinitum, useful only to advertisers and algorithms.

I saved some pictures and videos to my hard drive, promising myself that I’d look at them again someday. A few photos I sent to family members, using a shared iPhoto album; others went to old friends via Gmail (another act of data-collection cross contamination). Rediscovering these photos with my friends gave us an excuse to briefly reminisce and catch up, to wax nostalgic and commune in our mutual embarrassment that our late-night liberal-arts philosophizing had not only been caught on camera but now belonged to a gigantic tech corporation. It was a welcome reminder that my actual social network runs deep, that these relationships, however dispersed, are the realest things I have going. For the first time in my experience, Facebook lived up to its marketing materials: In providing a way off the platform, it had fostered a human connection.

This article appears in the September 2018 print edition with the headline “Thanks for the Memories?”