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.”)