Digging Into My Facebook Data

Piles of Books

Facebook has been in the spotlight lately, over a variety of issues related to how they collect and use the data of their “members”. Which means they’re doing a lot of apologizing and tinkering with their system, hoping to avoid more negative publicity and political interference.

But even without the recent problems, Facebook would be making alterations to their data policies, because of new laws in the European Union that go into effect next month. Among other features, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) will give citizens of the EU the right to see the data companies have collected on them.

Which is probably one reason why Facebook is now offering a way to download a copy of the information they have on you. You’ll find a link to make the request under General Account Settings.

If you’re an active Facebook user, be prepared for a large file. They will be sending your entire timeline, all the messages you’ve sent and received, every photo and video you’ve uploaded, and more.

My file, however, was not large at all, a zipped file of 74kb.

Although I registered for a Facebook account ten years ago, I’ve never posted anything in that time1 and very rarely comment on the posts of others. The only reasons I open the app a few times a month are to see the latest photos from friends and relatives, and to read new comics from Bloom County. I’m just not very social I guess.

In fact, the only even slightly interesting part of my Facebook data is in the Ads section, where we find a list of advertisers with my contact info. First advertiser: Cyndi Lauper. Farther down is Rod Stewart. Very odd.

The rest of the list includes a few companies I use regularly or from whom I’ve requested information. And many sites dealing with crowdfunding I’ve never heard of. I’m very sure I did not click on any ads for these firms in Facebook or on articles related to them.

All of which leads to a basic question: why did Facebook send my information to those advertisers? What did their algorithms find in my bland profile and very sparse timeline that lead to those matches? I suspect some of this data came from the harvesting Facebook does on other websites.

Anyway, check out the data Facebook has stored in your account. You may find something even more interesting.


The image is piles of old fashioned data taken by Michael Coghlan, posted to his Flickr account, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Ok, maybe not never. I found one post I made in April 2010: “Still on my ongoing effort to figure out the appeal of Facebook and why I would want to spend time on it. At least the iPad makes it easier than than the iPhone app. :-)”. I’m still working on that.

Pay to Play

Speaking of the Post Magazine (as in the previous post), this week’s education edition also featured a profile of a local private school. A long, glowing story about an expensive institution for gifted students and their success with those kids.

On the previous page we find an expensive, nearly full page ad for the same school.

My wife, who works with arts organizations in the DC area, is always trying to get the Post to cover their activities. Often the groups also buy ads in the same section of the Post as the story. She calls it “pay to play”.

But I’m sure in this case, it’s just a coincidence.

Paperless Makes You Stupid

Interesting ad in Fast Company, a business magazine that focuses on design and innovation. Featuring a cute little kid proudly holding up his A+ math paper, the copy tells us that “It’s easier to learn on paper” and that “Reading on paper is 10-30% faster than reading online, plus reviewing notes and highlighting is significantly more effective.”

Of course the company behind the ad sells paper, and we can only assume, would like the reader to buy more.

A website behind the ad campaign cites nine different papers and studies to support the overall contention that reading online and with digital readers is not good for “today’s students”. I don’t suppose the fact that two of them are more than ten years old and six others predate the release of the first iPad makes any difference.

However, what strikes me about the ad are the assumptions the copywriters seem to have about what education is and should be.

Learning math is correctly performing 36 calculations by hand. College is largely about reading standard printed textbooks and highlighting the text. Research papers are forever.

Teaching is all about transmitting information.

Paper has been around for almost two millennia and it has proven itself an effective and enduring method of transmitting information. In fact, learning from books continues to be one of the building blocks of a child’s future.

Let’s face it, that view of education is largely the same one held by most people in this country.

More Tech is Better, Right Kid?

If you watch any American TV without the benefit of a DVR, by now you’ve seen those AT&T ads featuring a group of cute kids being asked by an adult whether more is better than less, faster better than slower or [insert other quantitative contrasts here].

They grab your attention but I also found something slightly off about them. Larry Cuban is also irritated by the ads and does a good job of articulating why.

I have watched these ads many times and I finally put my finger on what bothered me about them. What got to me was not that the values of speed and quantity were being reinforced with kids — hey, the first-graders’ responses are cute and you gotta smile when you see a gap-toothed little kid jump up and down in excitement. What bothered me was the degree to which the pervasiveness of beliefs in technology and its generous fruits are held in America and is now peddled to all of us explicitly without a blink or doubt… by first graders.

There’s really nothing new in that attitude. Many people (although certainly not all) have always accepted the idea that simply incorporating the latest technology can somehow improve our lives and society. More is better than less, newer is better than old, high tech is better than low.

Certainly that has been true about education in my lifetime as schools enthusiastically bought into film, television, computers, the internet, and now tablets and online courses, based on loud claims from advocates (and corporations) that doing so would revolutionize both teaching and learning.

It hasn’t happened, of course, but not because each of the new mediums didn’t bring important changes. Unlike society in general, which is usually forced to change in some way as a result of the impact of new technologies (sometimes in painful ways), our educational system is very good at blocking alterations to the “normal” classroom structure, regardless of the impact being made in the real world.

By the way, have you wondered whether those ads are really unscripted? Yeah, me too.

Prepare to be Squeezed

Although I'm one of the 900 million or so people in the world with a Facebook account, I'm not a very active member. I can't remember ever posting anything and am very lax about following the messages of my friends. I also don't care about their financials (unless my retirement fund has done something really stupid like buying their newly issued stock).

However, there was something in a recent story about their earnings report that caught my eye.

Simply put, Facebook has saturated most of the world’s major markets. Now it needs to be able to show it can squeeze more revenue and higher earnings out of each user…

That simple statement says everything I need to know about my status and that of all those other Facebook members: we are not their customers.

Advertisers are their customers; and the time and attention of all those millions of users is the product being packaged and sold to those customers.

Prepare to be squeezed.