If someone built a tool that made Facebook less addictive—a tool that allowed users to benefit from Facebook’s positive features while limiting their exposure to its negative ones—how would Facebook respond?
I know the answer, because I built the tool, and Facebook squashed it. This summer, Facebook sent me a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action. It permanently disabled my Facebook and Instagram accounts. And it demanded that I agree to never again create tools that interact with Facebook or its other services.
The tool I created, a browser extension called Unfollow Everything, allowed users to delete their News Feed by unfollowing their friends, groups, and pages. The News Feed, as users of Facebook know, is that never-ending page that greets you when you log in. It’s the central hub of Facebook. It’s also a major source of revenue. As a Facebook whistleblower observed on 60 Minutes on Sunday, time spent on the platform translates to ads viewed and clicked on, which in turn translates to billions of dollars for Facebook. The News Feed is the thing that keeps people glued to the platform for hours on end, often on a daily basis; without it, time spent on the network would drop considerably.
I had the idea for Unfollow Everything a few years ago, when I realized you don’t actually need to have a News Feed. If you unfollow everything—all of your friends, groups, and pages—your News Feed ends up empty.
This isn’t the same as unfriending. If you unfollow your friends and groups, you’re still connected to them, and you can look up their profiles if you want. But by unfollowing everything, you eliminate your News Feed. This leaves you free to use Facebook without the feed, or to more actively curate it by refollowing only those friends and groups whose posts you really want to see.
I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.
When I unfollowed everything for the first time, I did it manually. I spent hours using a Facebook-provided feature to click unfollow on each of my friends, groups, and pages. I quickly realized that very few people would go to the same trouble, so I coded a simple tool that would automate the process. In July 2020, I published it to the Chrome Store, where people could download it for free.
Unfollow Everything started taking off. People loved it. Thousands of people got rid of their News Feed using it. Reviews included comments like “I am officially not addicted to Facebook thanks to you!” I received emails from people telling me that using the tool had changed their lives.
A few months after I published Unfollow Everything, academics at the University of Neuchâtel, in Switzerland, expressed interest in using it to study the News Feed’s impact on the amount of time spent on Facebook and the happiness of the platform’s users. We began working together. The university recruited people to join two study groups: one where participants deleted their News Feeds using Unfollow Everything and a control group where participants left their feeds intact. Participants agreed to share limited and anonymous information—specifically, the amount of time they spent on Facebook, the number of times they visited the site, and the number of friends, groups, and pages they were following and not following, both in total and broken down by category. (For regular Unfollow Everything users, the only Facebook-related data shared was the ratio of followed profiles to total profiles, a metric that helped me ensure the tool was working.)
Then, a few months ago, Facebook sent me a cease-and-desist letter. The company demanded that I take down the tool. It also told me that it had permanently disabled my Facebook account—an account that I’d had for more than 15 years, and that was my primary way of staying in touch with family and friends around the world. Pointing to a provision in its terms of service that purports to bind even former users of Facebook, Facebook also demanded that I never again create a tool that interacts with Facebook or its many other services in any way.
These demands seemed outrageous to me. They also seemed outrageous to lawyers I consulted from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and in the U.K. But my options were limited. I’m a U.K. resident, so a lawsuit against Facebook would probably have played out in a U.K. court, where I would have been personally on the hook for Facebook’s litigation costs if I lost. Facebook is a trillion-dollar company. I couldn’t afford that risk, so Unfollow Everything no longer exists. This is bad for its users, and also for the University of Neuchâtel, which will no longer be able to use it to study the News Feed.
I am far from the only one to face this kind of scenario. Facebook is increasingly using its terms of service to crush not only research, but also tools that give users more control over their data and platform experience. Just last summer, Facebook went after Friendly, a web browser that allows users to switch between their social media accounts, more easily download or repost photos and videos, and filter their feeds by keyword.
Facebook’s behavior isn’t just anti-competitive; it’s anti-consumer. We are being locked into platforms by virtue of their undeniable usefulness, and then prevented from making legitimate choices over how we use them—not just through the squashing of tools like Unfollow Everything, but through the highly manipulative designs and features platforms adopt in the first place. The loser here is the user, and the cost is counted in billions of wasted hours spent on Facebook.
If lawmakers and regulators are serious about empowering users to stand up to big tech, they need to address the ways in which platforms stymie user choice, including through terms of service. Platforms shouldn’t be able to wield the threat of lawsuits and account suspensions against researchers and developers who create tools that merely empower users—but as my experience shows, they can and do. How many people will be put off making tools that serve the public as a result?
I’m still searching for other ways to help people use Facebook less. But in the meantime, at least I can thank it for something: My own Facebook addiction is now definitively under control.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.