Most people around at the dawn of the public Internet might remember the brief period when important webpage addresses circulated by word of mouth, in emails among friends, and were even published in books. Back in 1994, for example, I remember buying a telephone book-sized tome hundreds of pages thick, packed with URLs broken down by type. I’d look in the book’s index, find what I wanted, and then type the unwieldy URL into the browser. Viola!
Then came search engines— Yahoo!, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves!, Google and others that provided provided simple and useful tools to locate things on the Internet. The value of the web address—whether shared between friends, collected in lists of “hotlinks,” or sold in published collections—was replaced by the algorithm. One didn’t need to ask a friend where the cool music sites were, Google would provide the most popular results (along with some advertising, of course.)
Facebook brought back the social aspects of sharing Internet information while, at the same time, leveraging the power of the algorithm. It has been successful, in part, because its proprietary algorithms aggregate and manage the many posts of “friends”—selecting relevant personal suggestions from the “social web.”
I initially joined Facebook because I was attracted to the fact that I could share interesting articles, photos and news with students and friends in a passive way—not imposing on people, for example, by forwarding links to friends though email or by Internet listservs. Facebook offered a way to share, but not to be pushy about it.
Of course we are not just sharing. Each and every one of us on Facebook is currently building a personal database of ourselves. Like little corals we are patiently laying down a reef of “likes.” Today I shared two news articles and a photo—just the most recent contribution to the collection of data to which I will add more tomorrow.
Right now my reef is nearly seven years high—a substantial construction. The number of years I have been on Facebook already is quickly approaching the combined number of years I was in graduate school studying for my PhD. If, over this period of time, I had learned one foreign word a day, I would have mastered a language. A note a day and I would be able to play just about any single musical instrument.
So it was a surprise to me when I recently realized a key fact about my Facebook “data reef”—a fact so obvious, that I can believe I didn’t notice it earlier.
I can’t easily search the database I have created about myself.
Recently I wanted to find a post that I had shared a few years back. It was an interesting article that the The Guardian (or was it the BBC?) had done about a project tracking shipping containers around the world. I wanted to share it with a student when I realized there was no easy way to locate it. If I wanted to find the URL I need to try and guess when I had posted it and manually scroll through my timeline. I briefly tried and quickly gave up. Had I written the link down, I could have looked it up. Had it been in a book circa 1994, I could have checked the index. For all the work I have done building my Facebook database, I couldn’t search for it there. As it turned out, I managed to finally locate the story with a Google search.
It is an interesting aspect of Facebook that its “time” of sharing is the real-time or “fairly recent” now. Yet its growing database comprises a functionally unsearchable persistent and slowly growing past archive. After a day or two passes “shared” items slip away into the database basically unusable to individual users. Because we can’t search Facebook posts, I question to what extent our digital pasts are even ours. They certainly cannot serve as a meaningful archive.
Of course, it isn’t just shared posts—”likes,” pokes, game data, event data, location checkins, all of the different categories of data that we share at any given “now”—slide away into a partially obscured never-forgetting database. We may forget, but the database we feed on our constant stream of information does not.
At this point some folks would start becoming a little paranoid, uncomfortable or concerned about the level of surveillance and the amount of data that Facebook is collecting about its users. It hasn’t bothered me too much, because I never share anything on Facebook that I would feel uncomfortable having the whole world see. (In fact, I learned this lesson when, in November of 2011 a student at my university posted a Facebook photo I took for the Occupy Wall Street’s We are the 99% Tumblr Blog on Imgur and it briefly rocketed to the front page of Reddit. It scared the heck out of me—a story I shared with a sociology major at our school for her blog.)
The thing is, the sets of data that we create from our Facebook activities only become valuable when they can be tied directly to who we are—either individually or in aggregate. To do this Facebook needs our demographic data—the things in the “about” section on Facebook. It hungers for our birth dates (to calculate ages), political values, religious values, high school and college education, the languages we speak, marital status, sexual orientation, employment data and other things on our profiles. The more data we share on our profiles about us—the more completely we reveal aspects of our personal history—the more accurately our shared posts and likes can be mined for meaning.
The fact that I share photos of my dog or posts about shipping containers or like King Oscar Sardines are just data points that may or may not be related to one another in any meaningful way. Add my age, employment history, hometown, gender and marital status, however, and those random data points become marketing information. Cross reference these things with the data that are collected about my friends and others that share significant similarities and the picture sharpens. A collection of links to things I find interesting give the algorithms little to work with. My Facebook data can only become my data double as soon as I give it enough real facts about me to bind us together.
Facebook is too valuable of a tool for keeping in touch with family, friends, colleagues and former students for me to “give it up.” In fact, I’d gladly pay a reasonable subscription for the service if it meant I could avoid ads and keep my data to myself. Of course, that will never happen. Facebook says it is “free and always will be” because our data generating labor in service of their algorithms is worth more than any reasonable subscription fee we might be willing to pay.
So I decided to do the next best thing—I started to consider the amount of information that I have volunteered about myself on Facebook. If Facebook won’t even let me easily search through the database that I have created about myself, why would I volunteer any extra information?
It is an unfortunate fact of American life that many of us are acculturated to “fill in the blanks.” Actually looking through the fields in the database about me, I asked why each one was important to my profile. If I couldn’t give a good reason, I deleted it.
Current employer. Useful to connect to colleagues. Keep.
Marital status. Keep.
Current City. Keep.
Basic contact information. Keep.
Birthday. Keep for now. (It is nice to get birthday wishes!)
Religious views. Delete. Political Views. Delete. Work History. Delete. Educational History. Why keep it? I had included my high school and college to locate friends from those days, but now that those waves had long since crested, was it necessary to keep them? Nope. All removed.
Then I looked at the “likes.” Seriously, why had I ever listed books, movies, films and other things that I “like.” At the time it seemed like a good idea to “share” these things with friends—to assert a solidarity over the sublime nature of Battlestar Galactica or Lost or The Pixies or Husker Du. But why? I enjoy them and what difference does it make if my friends know I do? Why add these data points to the Facebook database? I deleted as many as I could.
Applications. Oh, I deleted all of them—from the old games I played to the old apps that I briefly enjoyed and then had forgotten about.
I was surprised how much information was just sitting there in my Facebook profile—information that was not relevant to the core reason I use it. All if it I decided was information that Facebook doesn’t need.
I had deleted much of my information and was still feeling pretty good about my “spring cleaning,” when something unexpected happened.
The day after I deleted much of my “about,” information I logged in to be greeted with a banner at the top of my Facebook page, the question “Where did you go to College?” an incomplete status bar, and a statement “Your profile is 70% complete.” Beneath these statements was a “multiple choice question” and the faces of my friends.
The database wanted its fields complete. It was protesting and demanding to be fed.
I was fascinated how tempting those buttons were. Like a flower the right color to attract bees for pollen, the database presented me with symbols that reached back into the educational DNA of my childhood. I wanted to click on the multiple choice questions. I wanted to correct the machine. I wanted to report. I really wanted to click on them. I wanted to fill in the blanks. I wanted to have the status bar go all the way across. I wanted to ally with my friends. Declare my tribe. Not let them down. The little lock symbol at the bottom reassured me that if I didn’t want others to see this it was OK—my data would just be between me and the machine.
I took a deep breath and I reminded myself that I had removed everything that I wanted to remove and kept things that I wanted to keep. As far as I was concerned my profile was 100% complete for what I needed Facebook to do—regardless of what the database wanted.
I clicked on the little “x” in the upper right corner.
The question disappeared.
I thought it was over.
But it was just the beginning.
Ever since I removed much of my personal data from Facebook. Facebook has continued to ask me questions and has continued to plying me with easy opportunities to give up my information. It has continued to regularly ask me to feed it with information.
It has also resorted to protesting with banners and blank spaces. Not answering a question doesn’t make it go away. The empty space in the database exhibits a persistent need to be filled. Whenever I log into Facebook, right there on my page are two blanks with greyed-out questions asking for an answer. “Where did you go to high school?” “Where did you grow up?”
Tell me. Now.
This ongoing protest “sit in” on my Facebook page is mirrored in the iPhone app which displays an “alert badge” with a “five” next to it. There are five pieces of information that the app wants and will not be satisfied without:
1. “Where did you go to high school?”
2. “Where did you grow up?”
3. “Where did you go to college?”
4. “Where did you work before [your current job]?”
5. What year did you start [your current job]?
I have told it I don’t want to share, but after some time it returns to ask. Currently it is in the middle of another ongoing “sit in” on my Facebook page.
“Why won’t you share, dammit?”
It has become quite a nuisance and if I simply comply the nuisance will end. Of course, all of this suggests the value of the core data that I have denied it. Facebook protests because it needs those data to make sense of the many things I share.
Over the past month, however, the persistent and recurring questions from Facebook, have been working against the database’s intent. After resisting the seductive questions a few times, now I am immune to their siren calls. I now read their persistent questions as proof that there is something “not quite right.” They remind me that behind the friends and the sharing on Facebook, there is a hungry database growing. It is a database that I am creating about myself, and yet one to which I have very little access.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this, but at least the database is continues to remind me to ask.