In my attic lies a big box of scrapbooks and diaries chronicling my preteen through early college years, from the mid-1990s to early 2000s, in minute and sometimes cringe-inducing detail. The books are fat, their pages stuffed with doodles, notes passed in class, pictures clipped from magazines, and ticket stubs from multiple viewings of Titanic. But the box also speaks volumes with what’s not in it: namely, any books dated after 2004. That was the year Facebook launched, and my journaling habits tanked.
I joined as a sophomore in college, only a few months after Mark Zuckerberg hatched thefacebook.com in his Harvard dorm room. Back then, the site was accessible only to college students and felt tailored to that particular stage of our lives. It was a flirty, irreverent, and sparse online space where users could create personalized profiles, search for and “poke” each other, and not much else. As we grew into adulthood, so did Facebook. It opened its doors to anyone over the age of 13, rolled out a bevy of stimulating features like the News Feed, “reactions,” and livestreamed video, and embedded itself, uninvited, into the tasks and rhythms of our lives. With every status update, comment, and “like,” we built rich digital records of our personal lives, tastes, relationships, and political beliefs. While I never made a conscious decision to, I abandoned my scrapbooking hobby and replaced it with daily Facebook use instead. The semipublic nature of the platform forced me to both perform and edit myself in ways that I never did with journaling, but sharing life updates online felt easier and more gratifying than scribbling them private.
By my mid-20s, I started to feel that something might be lost in ditching my diaries for social media. I ended up writing my first academic publication on the topic while in graduate school. In it, I argued that Facebook wasn’t as new or unprecedented as we thought, but a continuation of scrapbooking and diary-keeping traditions that our ancestors had relied on for centuries to both express themselves socially and document their lives. Facebook wasn’t so different from the 16th-century album amicorum—ornate “friendship books” that aristocratic students in Europe swapped to write witty messages to each other and create a visual record of the friendships of their school days. The more years we spent on Facebook, the clearer it was that this was not just a digital arena for ephemeral, day-to-day social interaction, as it was often described, but a de facto archive of our lives.
But Zuckerberg and his team didn’t design Facebook with the ethics of archivists in mind. They designed it to elicit and hoard our personal data not for our long-term reference but for their own profit, quietly mining our words, clicks, and images in order to present us with the targeted advertising that the company relies on for its massive revenues. Despite revelations in recent years that Facebook has exposed users’ data to third parties, hosted widespread disinformation campaigns that have influenced elections, and knows more about us than the CIA, the company continues to enjoy a near-monopoly over the social media market. In February, it reported a user base of more than 2.3 billion people.
Though I’ve been a habitual Facebook user for nearly half my life, in recent months I have begun to reconsider my relationship with the platform. While I support calls to rein in the company by regulating it, I also wanted to take the small, individual step of learning just how much it knew about me. It wasn’t enough to simply delete my profile or download my data for personal safekeeping, an option that Facebook rolled out in 2018 amid the fallout from its privacy scandals and the passage of the General Data Protection Regulation law in Europe. Maybe it was the former scrapbooker in me, but I needed to convert my Facebook into something like a physical book, flip through its pages, prop open a window with it, and feel its weight in my hands. All of this would prove difficult, I later learned, because my Facebook was more than 10,000 pages long.
It turns out that while downloading your Facebook data is easy, printing it is not. I started by going to “Settings” in my Facebook account, clicking “Your Facebook Information,” and then “Download Your Information.” After half an hour, my full Facebook archive was on my hard drive in a .zip file. Unzipping the file was not unlike opening a closet and having 20 shoeboxes of old letters, photos, and newspaper clippings rain down on me, revealing in one sobering moment the extent of my virtual hoarding.
Inside the .zip file were dozens of HTML documents detailing specific categories of Facebook activity. These documents had simple names like “Friends.html” and “Event Invitations.html” that masked the enormity of their contents. Opening the file called “Posts and Comments” in a folder called “Likes and Reactions,” for example, revealed a massive, yet useless, log of every time I had “liked” a friend’s post or comment on Facebook, but without listing the original content of the post I had liked. It took my computer all night to convert this gigantic file into a printable PDF, which totaled 4,612 pages.
One document I lingered over was “Other People’s Posts To Your Timeline.” Mine was more than 300 pages long. Scrolling to the bottom, I found the first inscriptions that friends from college had left on my Facebook “wall” back in 2004, when we first joined the site, completely unaware of what we were getting into. Like paging through an old yearbook, reading these cheery messages from my then-19-year-old friends, some of whom I had only recently met, filled me with nostalgia. I’ve since lost touch with many of them but reassured myself that, at least according to the laws of Facebook, we are still technically “connected” and “friends” today. Maybe Facebook wasn’t so terrible after all.
The rush down memory lane continued as I sifted through other documents spanning 15 years, like “Photos,” “Your Posts,” and “Comments.” After converting these to PDFs, they totaled more than 3,000 pages. These files, while overwhelming in size, held the kind of sentimental data that was worth hanging onto and that would be at home in an old-fashioned scrapbook. Here were the pictures of my wedding, graduations, and travels; quotes of funny things my kids had said; an obituary for my grandfather; and recipes and news articles I’d saved for myself and shared with others.
But other documents seemed out of place and served as stark reminders of the corporate, impersonal nature of this archive. Nestled like Easter eggs among the profile pictures and friend requests, these files reminded me that the real reason Facebook had saved and sorted all of this data was to surveil and sell me things. A document called “Friend Peer Group,” for example, listed, in one laughably short line, the “Life stage description” that Facebook had assigned to me and my friend network, presumably based on our ages and other data points. According to Facebook, my millennial peers and I are well into “Established Adult Life,” a designation that many of us would find hilarious.
Other files were less amusing. “Advertisers Who Uploaded a Contact List With Your Information” was a 116-page roster of companies, most of which I had never heard of, that have used my data to try to sell me things. The document called “Facial Recognition Code” was disturbingly brief and indecipherable, translating my face into a solid block of jumbled text—a code that only Facebook’s proprietary technology can unlock—about 15 rows deep. Some documents held secrets, too. “Search History” revealed an embarrassingly detailed record of my personal obsessions and preoccupations over the years. Crushes, phobias, people I have argued with and envied―this was the information I never wanted to post on Facebook, but instead had asked Facebook to help me find. This information, along with the facial recognition codes of my children (which were not included in the .zip file, but which I assume Facebook owns), is the data I most wish I could scrub from the servers of the world.
All told, my Facebook archive was 10,057 pages long. I decided to discard the 4,612-page document of disembodied “likes,” which brought the total down to a more manageable 5,445 pages. It took seven phone calls before I found a printing service willing to print a single document that large at a price I could afford. Most places charged 5 to 7 cents a page, which would have cost me between $272 and $381. I ultimately found a service that charged only 2 cents a page, which cost $108.90 plus tax. After placing my order and asking for it to be printed double-sided, my abbreviated Facebook arrived on my doorstep within a week as 2,723 pages of double-sided, black-and-white A4 paper, stacked in a cardboard box about the size of six phone books.
It seemed absurd to print something so massive, and with so much disaggregated data that I’d never want to read in full, but I was glad I did it. I had no illusions about “reclaiming my data”―I knew all of this was Zuckerberg’s to keep―but I felt a smidgen of empowerment in finally getting a grasp of the mountain of information I had given him. I had been gradually scaling back my Facebook use for over a year, but this project made me more mindful about what I would share and search for there. Still, I felt some resignation in the realization that I wasn’t likely to quit Facebook anytime soon, so long as there was no viable alternative. Printing my Facebook at once made me more aware of social media’s utility in helping us store and share information about our lives, and more convinced of the need for regulatory reform that gives consumers greater control over their data and actual choice in whom to entrust with it.
As I lugged my Facebook up to my attic, I knew that some might criticize this expenditure of paper as an environmental waste. But I don’t see it that way. Since my Facebook activity stretched over 15 years, or 5,475 days, my double-sided printed record of it worked out to roughly one side of a piece of paper per day―not far from what I might’ve used if I had stuck with my old habit of scrapbooking. But when I thought of it that way, another insight became embarrassingly clear: I hadn’t just given Facebook a staggering amount of my data; I had given it a staggering amount of my time. Fifteen years of my life, and probably enough hours of my attention to fill a few years’ worth of waking time.
I plunked my Facebook down next to my old collection of scrapbooks and diaries, whose bindings have become brittle with time. Compared with these homely, handwritten creations, my Facebook looked clean, orderly, modern, and grown-up. It was, for better or worse, the bulk of my life’s “papers,” my record of “Established Adult Life.” I felt some minor relief knowing that, if Facebook ever went under or if I decided to quit it for good, I would now have a hard copy of everything I’d posted there, at least up until June 15, 2019. But my old books beckoned, too, reminding me that I could always come back and tell them, in fuller confidence, what was really on my mind.