Facebook: You are the Product

I've been meaning to write my thoughts on this topic for a while now, but since the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal that has surfaced, I figured now might be a good time to do it.

I used to use Facebook a lot. Back in college, that was the thing to do before and after class (also during classes, if things got boring). Got a cool picture to post? Post it on Facebook. Got something witty (or, at least you thought it was witty) to say? Post it as a status on Facebook. Want to poke and message someone? Message them on Facebook. It was easy to use, and having that sense of validation by getting likes on my posts made me feel like I was doing the right things in life. However, as the years have gone by, a few things have pushed me away from using the service:

  1. The massive increase in network privacy and security concerns that spawn at an alarming rate (reactionary push), and
  2. The general disinterest in the platform for how much it has evolved (organic push).

With the Cambridge Analytica fiasco directing the eyes of the world on Facebook, I want to talk a bit about some of the privacy problems that I feel are somewhat inherently "understood," but incite outrage with people once they're brought to the surface by journalists. This is not a post about what you should be doing; rather, this is an opportunity for me to provide clarity on the avenues of this social platform that cause major distress for me.

Ultimately, here are the reasons why I've been using Facebook a lot less often.

Facebook: A Preface

Facebook is a free social network platform whose product is driven by the consumer. That is, the people, the posts, the interactions, the feed: those are fueled by users who engage with the platform. The keyword here is free. Facebook makes money through ads, but also simply by engaging the time you spend on their platforms. Whether it's Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, or Instagram: each platform is tailored to listen and understand how you interact with the ecosystem, and hence drive ad revenue through those channels.

Free Services are Convenient (for a price)

Free services are taken for granted most of the time. It's easy to be exhilarated at using a service that costs no money, yet provides incredible convenience. From being able to connect with people you haven't seen ever since high school, to witnessing people celebrate their marriage or newborn baby; these are all events that would otherwise be considered impossible without a service like Facebook. They have provided an extremely useful channel to broadcast your life statuses (whether pertinent or irrelevant) to the entire world. The fact that I can talk to my aunts in South Korea in real time is nothing short of extraordinary. That's really cool.

Convenience comes with a price. Notably, in this case, your personal data. While you may be the sole owner of the statuses, photos, and videos you post, Facebook has the ability to use your content as they see fit. Expressed in legal jargon in their Terms of Service:

For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
When you delete IP content, it is deleted in a manner similar to emptying the recycle bin on a computer. However, you understand that removed content may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time (but will not be available to others).

Convenience is nice because it makes people's lives easier. Take credit cards for instance. Would you rather pay for a large purchase with a card, or with cash? Rather than have to travel to a bank to get the funds necessary, it's really easy to swipe a card that's almost always in your pocket. This is at the cost of credit card companies (and those who can request access to your credit scores) understanding the things you buy, where you buy them (think: fraudulent transaction services), how frequently you purchase, and even how much you make (think: credit card limit requests). Whereas with cash, it is difficult to identify exactly where that money came from, other than that you simply had it to begin with. It's the cost of convenience that can improve privacy, and vice-versa.

Selling Personal Data is Immoral (but it happens)

This has been a topic as of recent history, but personal data gets sold for a primary reason: companies who buy data want to understand how to better target you with goods and services. Whenever you use a website, your mouse clicks, keyboard strikes in a form field, and page views are all tracked. They typically track these metrics and usage using a special kind of token that can be traced back to you, but there are times where they may even be associated on a name-by-name basis.

Companies buy your data because data is knowledge. With more knowledge comes power, and with more power comes profit. If companies understand how you react to certain ads, how you use a messaging app, or how you add filters to a photo, they can provide a much easier way to keep you engaged and using their services. This kind of lure helps keep people within their ecosystem, thus driving in more data.

Companies sell your data simply because it's profitable. While it's never publicly mentioned (because no one wants to hear about their personal data getting sold), it is without a doubt that this happens, whether through legal means or through harvesting (see above article). What the contents of that data is can depend. It isn't a complete exposure to your personal data consisting of your social security number, credit card, and such; rather, it is a profile with enough data to potentially create psychographics. This ultimately allows interested parties to understand nuances and tendencies made by a sampling group, which can help provide conclusions for actions, whether they are constructive or malicious.

Deactivation Does NOT Mean Deletion

People like to believe that when you deactivate your account from a free service, that means all of the data will disappear. Unfortunately, this isn't accurate.

To give a full explanation on how data is persisted across a site like Facebook is beyond the scope of this post, so here's a basic summary:

  1. When you add any kind of media and upload it to Facebook, that is stored in a server somewhere. Some people might say it's stored "in the cloud." I hate to say it, but the cloud is literally a server farm located closest to you. So in this case, this photo might be stored in a hard drive on a server farm (which can encompass several thousands of hard drives) in Houston.  
  2. Because of how Facebook needs redundancy to ensure your data never gets lost, servers typically get backed up to other server farms. The reason is simple: if an area loses power or is unable to deliver content, Facebook can rely on a different area to deliver the content at no experience loss to the user. This is called redundancy.
  3. This data is persisted for long periods of time, and deleting may not always mean it's gone forever.

    Think about how computers work: When you see a file that you no longer care about, the first reaction is to right-click and tap on "Delete." When you delete a file, it gets moved to a Recycle Bin/Trash. When you open this up, you still see the file. This is called a soft delete. The file is marked as dirty, but hasn't been completely evicted from the hard drive because there's still a chance the consumer may want to restore it. It's only until the user explicitly states that they want to clean their Recycle Bin that the file gets permanently* removed.

    In this case, when you deactivate your Facebook account, it's simply marked as dirty. If you ever decide to come back months later, you'll be greeted with everything you previously had, as if it had never been deleted.

*: Permanent in the sense of not being visible to the user. It's possible the data could still be recovered using other mediums, unless the data is zeroed out completely.

Because of the amount of redundancy that Facebook puts into their data, it is impossible to traverse every hard drive and wipe out every single piece of data that describes you. It's so difficult, there are services out there that try to do this for you. 

Lose the Fight, Not the War

As a user of social media, the fight is over. All of the statuses, messages, photos, videos that have been posted will always be retained somewhere, whether it's through Facebook, or some data mining group. Persistence is pivotal for a service like Facebook, as it is a platform that requires constant sustainability and flexibility for its 2 billion user pool. 

However, an action to take is to simply not use the service. This is not something I'm enforcing everyone to take, but rather an idea to hopefully start thinking about. There are ways to purge your data that you don't want to be found publicly on Facebook, and this is a direction that I'm soon going to take with some of my older posts (especially those mundane ones from college). If you want an archive of your data, you can request Facebook to package it up for you by going to Settings -> General -> Download a copy of your Facebook data..

Personally, I have stopped using Facebook as often as I used to in order to improve my mental health. I was too focused on what people would think about which photos or statuses that I posted, which made me realize that these platforms are incredibly useful ways to seek validity amongst your peers. It feels good getting likes for posting something funny. It feels reassuring when you're down in the dumps and people are there to help console you. Because I became so attached to those small endorphin kicks, it made me feel incredibly dependent on seeking that validation.

So, I made it a major point halfway through last year to not use Facebook often. I turned off all mobile notifications, I moved it off of my home screen, and pushed it into a folder several apps deep. Just that one trick has given me a major quality of life improvement. I don't care about things that I'm missing out on, because people that care enough to let me know, will. It's given me several new avenues to converse about things that were immediately taken away from me when I discovered them through this platform. 


The point of this blog was to identify areas that I feel are taken for granted by many people, and to explain some concepts and ideas in a relatively easy manner. Much of this was mostly rambling, but it's been stimulated by the recent outbreak of security breaches coming out today. These are my opinions and my beliefs, and as such, this does not mean you need to agree with them. I am welcome to talking about it; simply leave a comment and we can converse.


I will say, though: it's been nice not having to rely on you, Facebook.