API U Series

How Facebook Makes it Nearly Impossible For You To Quit

Deep inside the Facebook user experience, there exists a menu option for users who want to export their personal data — their friend lists, their posts, their photos, their comments, etc. -- as a final gesture before deactivating their accounts and quitting the social network. In an attempt to assuage a growing range of critics and prove that it’s not deliberately or exploitively trapping users in its service, Facebook advertises the availability of this export in a format that "allows another service to more easily import it.” That’s Facebook's exact text. Perhaps the best test of this utility and the sincerity of Facebook’s intentions might be whether Facebook itself can import its own export. It can’t.

With every mainstream news headline about the company’s conduct, there’s a growing and convincing body of evidence that Facebook has been grossly negligent in how it prioritizes its business interests over those of its users and the world. Fearing some dangerous point of no return, the desire among various quarters to seriously clip Facebook’s wings is palpable as both users and governments look for ways to break the social network’s influential if not addictive grip.

While government agencies explore their regulatory options, “quitting Facebook” is now a growing meme among the service's users, many of whom feel as though Facebook has broken their trust. As that meme continued to unfold, it was unclear to me whether ProgrammableWeb had anything of value to contribute to the conversation.

But, as a user of Facebook myself who, like many other users, feels trapped by the sheer dearth of Facebook-substitutes, I began to question if an alternative was not just competitively possible (a question raised by coverage found elsewhere), but whether it was technically possible as well.

Knowing it would be difficult for users to sacrifice Facebook's fundamental features (the feed, the imagery, the personal connections, the groups, etc.), any legitimate Facebook competitor would have to be very Facebook-like in terms of its basic functionality. But, also in my mind, for such a competitor to have any hope, there needs to be something technically different; something that by sheer virtue of its architecture, engenders user and community trust. Something that puts users, instead of a central network operator like Facebook, in total control of their data and their lives. Something that eliminates the sort barriers that keep us from leaving Facebook today. Finally, something into which our Facebook data — data that users have always had the primary role in creating — can easily be imported.

And that’s when this became a story for ProgrammableWeb and the impetus for this three part special series. The fact that, Facebook, of all companies, can’t import its own exports, raised a red flag to me. It alerted me to the technical possibility that the export was missing something; that even if the export could be imported back into a new Facebook account, that there would be a significant loss of functionality. This, in turn, led me to wonder whether Facebook's definition of “your data” is the same as what you or I might think of as our data.

In our tests of Facebook’s downloads, we spotted some noteworthy data deficiencies. It caused us to not only question Facebook’s sincerity about the utility of the export, but also whether Facebook’s API, through which other data is available, should or could play a role in migrating one’s data from Facebook to some other solution.

As our six-months long study continued, we discovered that some of the data you'd want is available through the downloads while other data you’d want is available from the API. And still other data wasn’t available at all. As our investigation continued, we concluded that the only way to really quit Facebook and take your data with you would, at bare minimum, require access to both the downloads and the API along with the ability for you to easily supply other important data that Facebook doesn’t offer through either channel (eg: email address for each of your friends).

Even then, as you will see from our coverage, the obstacles to quitting Facebook, taking your data with you, and using it in a stand alone application or as part of another social network were so daunting, that we deemed it impossible. The data is incomplete. Such an application doesn’t exist (though, in open source fashion, we started to write it). And there’s no substitute for Facebook. At least not yet. Of course, you can always quit and leave the last decade or so of your life behind. But, if you’re like us humans here at ProgrammableWeb, then you probably won’t.

ProgrammableWeb's investigative journalism on this very important subject comes at an equally important time. To developers, Facebook users, and government regulators, we hope it offers important technical insights that inform the larger conversation taking place right now. I look forward to your direct feedback.

David Berlind

Despite a barrage of headlines that could kill most companies, Facebook operates with near absolute impunity. To dissatisfied users who want out, it brazenly dangles an offer to take all their data before quitting so it can be uploaded to another service. We tested the veracity of that offer.
Before Facebook users consider an alternative social network, two things must be easily moved to that alternative; their friends and their data. Facebook's website advertises it will give you your data so it can be uploaded to another service. ProgrammableWeb puts that bold claim to the test.
As government regulators and consumers grapple with the extraordinary control and commercialization that Facebook exerts over personal data, and the extent to which Facebook has abused that privilege, a bigger question looms; what hope exists, if any for the emergence of a legitimate alternative?