A few years ago, a college pal unfriended me on Facebook. To this day, I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe I had given offense, maybe I’d been dull, and maybe she’d just been simplifying her online life. That uncertainty ate me up—it still gnaws at me, if I’m being honest. I’d rather not repeat the experience: If you’re going to unfriend me, I’d just as soon not find out.
But apparently my desire isn’t universal. Early this week, the tech press exploded with enthusiasm for a new app that promises to tell you who, exactly, has removed you from their roster. Called “Who Deleted Me?”, the app—which is available for Android, iOS, and as a Chrome extension—inspired more than 100 articles in a matter of days. First discussed by Next Web, it was subsequently covered by Mashable, the Washington Post, and a host of other sources. As the attention built, so many users attempted to put it through its paces that its servers repeatedly crashed.
Anthony Kuske, the British Web developer who created “Who Deleted Me,” calls this flurry of attention “pretty amazing … a little scary too.” In an email, he told me that he had coded the initial version of the app after noticing that his friend count had gone down. His first pass was a Facebook plugin, but the company shut it down earlier this year—he says it did so “because of a technical issue not because of a policy violation.” Nevertheless, he says that he’s “worried about how Facebook will react” to the new version in light of the widespread coverage it’s received.
When Kuske first set out to program “Who Deleted Me?” he figured “it would be pretty simple,” and indeed it is. When you allow the app to access your Facebook profile, it takes a snapshot of your friends list. According to Kuske, it “only reads the user’s first name and user ID, and the full name and user ID for each friend” as it does so. The next time a user activates the app, it captures another image of this list. It then compares these two lists to each another and reports back on any changes, detailing any new names that have appeared and announcing any that have left.
This means, as many have already noted, that “Who Deleted Me?” has only partial functionality. Try it out just once, and Kuske will have your information, but you won’t learn anything new. It can only report changes that take place after you use it for the first time. What’s more, Kuske’s app can’t identify users who’ve muted you, keeping you on their friends lists but preventing your posts from showing up in their timelines.
These limitations clearly haven’t prevented many from trying “Who Deleted Me?” out, as its connectivity troubles reveal. Kuske told me that it had been “running well on two fairly small servers at Digital Ocean until it got all the attention.” He was in Monaco when news started to build and had to rush to Nice, France, in an attempt to get it back online. “It’s now running,” he wrote Wednesday morning, “on 15 servers and still struggling with the load when America wakes up.”
Despite these difficulties, Kuske claims that user response has been largely positive. On the app’s Facebook page, he explained, people have been telling him “that they think it’s a very useful tool and they’re annoyed that Facebook doesn’t allow you to do this normally.” This still does little to explain why Facebook users would want to employ such an app, given that, in my experience, it’s more likely to drive you crazy than give you closure. Kuske holds that some just want “to see who doesn’t like them.” But most, he suggested to me, are just curious in the way that he was when he first created it.
Satisfying that curiosity doesn’t just risk a user’s peace of mind—it also means sacrificing privacy. “Who Deleted Me?” doesn’t gather much more information than other Facebook-integrated programs that many of us use every day. Kuske declined to answer an emailed question about if and how his app anonymizes data, and his privacy statement doesn’t suggest that it does so. And while there’s no reason to suspect that Kuske has ill intentions, it’s not entirely clear that the data he gathers from his users will be secure.
So, should you use this thing? Probably not, especially if you’re as shame-prone as I am. But whether or not you do, the attention Kuske’s app has received will probably ensure that some of your friends install it, in spite of the risks. For now, you’re probably better off following Facebook’s own advice and muting friends rather than removing them. Unless you want to make them feel bad, in which case, unfriend away.