social media

Examining My Facebook Downloads

One very good consequence of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story is that a lot of people are discovering the surprisingly large amount of data that Facebook holds on them. The BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones was “somewhat shocked” to see what it had on him. And The Verge has a good piece on the subject with particular reference to Android phones.

In essence, Facebook always asks for quite a lot of data when you install its apps, and people seem to be too quick to offer that data when it comes to installing those apps. Only now are they discovering what they’re sharing.

“Yes, yes. Just install and let me get onto Facebook,” seems to be the default thought process.

Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve always slavishly careful about those permissions myself, but I certainly wanted to see what Facebook holds on me. So I went to the Facebook Settings page and clicked on the Download A Copy link at the bottom.

Facebook first has to prepare the data, crunching it into a Zip file for you. You need to re-enter your password to begin the process, and Facebook promises to email you when the link is ready.

Based on others, I thought it may take a while to compile, but in face it took just 16 minutes. Fast considering the volume of data and the number of users who are perhaps also doing this right now. You have to re-enter your password a second time, and then the file downloads.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, and I thought that this could be a big file. In the end it was just over 1.1GB. I’ve uploaded a lot of photos to the service in the past, but particularly in the early years of Facebook, they heavily down-sampled those pictures. (Another reminder that you shouldn’t use Facebook as your only photo backup.)

Anyway, the file extracts easily enough and Facebook has built a fairly intuitive html interface for you to examine your data offline.

My profile data is an interesting place to start. Facebook seems to have detected a single family relationship. While relatively few of my family are on Facebook, some of those who are, were not picked up here as family members. If they don’t have the same surname it might not be obvious to an algorithm.

The interests section is very odd, and not very accurate. When Facebook first started, you just had empty text boxes to fill out. I wrote a general stream of consciousness about music, TV, movies and so on. At various points Facebook has tried to clean that up a little, isolating artists and titles, and linking them to official accounts or lists that it has.

But despite prompts to help them (and help me!), I never really played ball. So there is one novel listed in books, which I think I was probably reading at the time. There is one TV series – one that I absolutely do not recommend. Movies are a little more populated, but with films I may have referenced directly on the service rather than anything else. And music is very limited. Facebook really doesn’t know much about my media consumption.

In general, Facebook would learn a lot more about my media choices if they scanned through this blog!

Otherwise, most of the rest is either groups or people I’ve taken an interest in. I would say that they’ve used Instagram heavily for the latter.

Probably the most contentious area is the list of contacts. And for me, that’s a moment in time, when I did at one point let Facebook into my phone or Gmail account. The list of contacts is old, and while many of those email addresses and phone numbers still work, they’re cast in aspic. Over the years I’ve had any number of phones, and if and when I install a Facebook app, I never give permission for it to see my contacts.

My Timeline is as you would expect – everything I’ve written on Facebook. I link my Twitter account to Facebook, because I’m far more active there. All those Tweets are also captured here. But nothing I wouldn’t expect Facebook to have.

As I mentioned above, I’ve uploaded a number of photos to Facebook over the years. They tend to be more social photos than anything, and Facebook was an easy way to share with friends and work colleagues. Latterly, anything that I’ve cross-posted from Instagram shows up. [Update: A friend – on Facebook – noted that captions for photos are not included]

There are only a limited number of videos, again social, and no surprises.

Messages lists all my Facebook message and Messenger interactions. I loathe Messenger and don’t ever have it permanently installed (On occasion I’ve installed it for a short, but necessary period of time. I uninstall it immediately thereafter). Nontheless, again there were no surprises.

The data supplied by Facebook on “Pokes” (Remember them?) was incomplete. I only had one poke listed!

Security lists a variety of things including devices, and even IP addresses from which I’ve accessed Facebook.

The final two key pieces of note were Applications and Ads. I recently cleared out the list of applications that I allow Facebook links to. It’s always worth doing this on a regular basis. I know precisely which apps are currently linked, and there is a good reason for each of them. There are only five.

Ads are broken into three parts. There’s the list of topics that Facebook thinks you’re interested in. This is a curious mix of very broad things (“Music”) and very narrow things (“Dan Martin (cyclist)”). It’s reasonably fair, although I don’t really have a particular interest in Citroen, nor Motor Sports or Auto racing. And I’ve no idea why “BBC Radio Solent” is one of a handful of radio stations listed as being of interest to me [Update: I worked out that a former work colleague of mine works there now, and I’ve liked some of their activities]. They do at least list my current employer! My previous employer is not listed. It’s possibly that this list is dynamically updated and pruned accordingly.

Ads History claims to list all the ads I’ve clicked on. They only have two listed – both this year – and one without a named advertiser. This is clearly missing data. While I do recall clicking the one named advertiser, and although I rarely click advertisements, I have clicked others in the past. Incredibly, I once actually bought something on the basis of a Facebook ad! Extraordinary, I know.

Finally, perhaps most worrying for me, is a list of “Advertisers with your contact info.” Most of the list is made up of KLM subsidiaries. I once entered a KLM competition on Facebook, and must have agreed they could use my data. I rarely participate in competitions that require much data access for this very reason. Uber, Airbnb, Deliveroo and eBay Canada seem to have my details. But there are a hole bunch of seemingly related “Crowdfunding” companies who have my data. I’ve no idea how they got it, and more importantly, I’ve no idea how to remove it from them. In general it’s quite a contained list.

Notably, Facebook does not have a list of my outgoing or incoming calls, and it’s not had access to any SMS messages I’ve sent. I’ve never given permission, and never wanted to use one of its products as my default SMS app.

The most sensitive data is my list of contacts. But that data is old and is not being updated since the Facebook app on my current phone does not have permission.

As I’ve said repeatedly on this blog, I’ve never found Facebook the most trustworthy company. But on the other hand, there aren’t any surprises to me from what Facebook has in my data.

I think that there are some incomplete aspects of it. I’ve clearly clicked on more ads that Facebook is admitting – but perhaps they delete that data after a period? Less importantly, the list of Pokes was incomplete. I mention that only as it suggests that this might not be a truly complete picture of my Facebook activity.

But I also know that if I carried out the same process for Google, it would be a lot larger. Google has all my email. It has all my contacts. It stores documents, photos and videos for me. I use its browsers multiple times per day. It knows what YouTube videos I watch. It knows what music I listen to. I’ve had phones running its software for years. They know where I go.

In all of that respect, it’s potentially a much scarier proposition.

And yet, I do have more trust in Google than I do in Facebook. Perhaps that’s misplaced? Perhaps not. But in general terms, I think people are clearer in their knowledge of how their Google data is used.

Auditing who knows what about you is important, and we should all be doing this on a regular basis. It’ll be a much bigger job, but it looking at my Google Data might be worth doing too…

[UPDATE]

It’s probably worth highlighting a few things that you don’t get from this data.

  • Likes – Given that a key part of the Cambridge Analytica story is about trying to determine OCEAN psychographic measures from Facebook likes, a record of comments and pages I’ve “liked” is data that’s relevant but not here.
  • Facebook Pixel dataFacebook Pixel is the technology that Facebook uses to determine where users also go. While that could be websites that simply allow you to comment via your Facebook login, it might as well be websites that you never realised had installed the pixel. In effect, when you visit such a site, Facebook knows about it. It gives them some of the data that Google collates about you via its ad networks.
  • Geographic data – Facebook loves to know where you are. I mostly have this turned off, but couldn’t definitively say that this has always been the case. While Google has its Timeline History that tells you where you’ve been, there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent for Facebook’s location data. Incidentally, if you’ve never explored that Google data, I’d urge you to. You’ll be delighted, scared and possibly both. (Note to crime drama and fiction writers: Nobody ever uses this, although I understand it potentially increases the difficulty in plotting your story as mobile phones in general have.)
  • Whatsapp or Instagram data – I’ve noted that some of my Instagram information does seem to have fed through to parent company Facebook’s data. But that doesn’t seem to be the case for WhatsApp. Within the EU, Facebook has been limited quite significantly about how much data it shares. The UK’s Information Commissioner made that very point again recently. But it’s worth noting nonetheless.

Celebrity RIP Tweets

We have just come through 2016, and for many, it won’t be fondly remembered. Election and referendum results notwithstanding, there were a number of deaths – often of people very much revered.

Today, when someone dies, we learn about it almost instantly. The news will turn up in social feeds. Alerts on our smartphones will tell us about breaking news.

And if you don’t personally get the news that way, it’s entirely probable that someone near you will hear it that way. Then you might switch to a 24 hour news channel or put on the radio.

We live in a continuous 24 hour news cycle.

The old idea of news cycles has long since gone. And that means that when something happens, we need instant analysis and reporting.

Yet the reporting of someone’s death can really grate with me. If the name is big enough – say, David Bowie – then everything stops.

Breakfast TV and radio that day was thrown over to rolling news and reaction to his death, with the announcement having come at around 7am UK time.

But actual details about the death are initially likely to be limited. A manager will have perhaps put out a brief two-line statement saying that the person died peacefully in their sleep, and that’ll be about the long and short of it. It’s possible that it was well known that the person had been ill for some time, or it might come as quite a shock – an unforeseen heart attack perhaps.

However, the media has hours of airtime to fill. Fans want to remember their heroes.

The first thing that reports of a celebrity death will include is quotes from their peers. And these now tend to come from social media – especially Twitter.

The problem is that it can almost feel like there’s a rush on for other famous, and not-so-famous people to have their say. Now of course, the democracy of the internet means that we can all have our say, and while another artist may have been friends and worked with the deceased star, someone else might have been inspired by that person, or perhaps just loved their work.

But in the media, he who shouts first, gets quoted first. So instead of a carefully curated collection of thoughts of those who perhaps we’d be most interested in hearing eulogies from, we get the thoughts of those who happen to be Tweeting soonest.

It can be as simple as whoever wakes up and hears the news first is the person who’s thoughts lead the news bulletins over the next few hours.

“Tributes have been coming in for Deceased_Star. Talent_Show_Winner said, ‘I always looked up to them. I was really proud that I was able to sing one of their songs in the semi-final of Talent_Show. They inspired me.’ Meanwhile Twitter_Loving_Comedian said, ‘It was a privilege to work with them at Charity_Event.'”

Well, thanks for that.

I’m not saying that the comments made by said famous folk aren’t heartfelt and don’t count. I can’t tell you whether someone is posting something on Twitter because it makes them look good and relevant that they comment, or whether it’s just an earnest tribute towards someone who was important to them in whatever way.

But at 7.15am there are scores of journalists scouring Tweetdeck looking for anything any famous person says. So a politician with a reactive PR person gets in early, but older and wiser people – who would previously either actually been called by a journalist, or released a statement via an agent – don’t get heard early on. (Read a great piece by Andrew Collins based on one particular Tweet here.)

I understand the difficulty on the other side of the fence. You’re a music journalist, and suddenly every broadcast outlet and newspaper is calling you asking you to either speak on air, or write 1,500 words for tomorrow’s edition – and needing to be online by lunchtime.

There’s a brilliantly funny story by ex-Word editor and Whistle Test presenter, Mark Ellen, in his book Rock Stars Stole My Life, who relates being called by broadcasters everywhere to comment on the death of Michael Jackson. The running gag was that Paul Gambaccini – seemingly always on top of every news producer’s contact list when a musician dies – was stuck in traffic in a cab.

But they’re journalists, and that’s to be expected. And anyway, I’m not really talking about them.

I’m talking about news reports that are full of basically random famous folk. Yes, the facts can probably be summarised in a couple of lines, but there are hours to fill! And so we get pretty much whoever’s available at short notice and whoever happened to hit Twitter first.

In due course, over the following few hours, a better selection of comments is gathered. Relevant friends and artists have their thoughts collected. And the TV channels stop using the same B-roll footage that they found on YouTube, archivists delivering much better quality, interesting and relevant pictures*.

* Although this is likely to be the subject of a future blog. Despite having a vast wealth of digital material at our fingertips, it’s disheartening how many television obituary packages seem to consist of badly captured and screen-grabbed footage. When Liz Smith died recently, ITV News’ obit seemed to consist of footage simply grabbed from the BBC iPlayer of a recent Royle Family reairing. Even allowing for this being over Christmas, surely a higher quality source could have been found?

“Join the conversation on Twitter…”

We’ve all heard this on air.

We’re extolled to get in touch with some programme using Twitter, Facebook, text or whatever. The presenter regularly lets the audience know what their social media handle is. Perhaps the programme has a hashtag.

“Let us know what you think!”

And then?

Well they don’t really use those contributions to any extent at all.

This is particularly the case in big national broadcasts – presumably because someone is looking a bit panicked at a speedily updating column in Tweetdeck. So they stick with the known. Time and again you see the obvious candidates’ Tweets get used: Gary Lineker; Rio Ferdinand; Stephen Fry.

I’ve absolutely nothing against those people, and like the fact that they’re big users of Twitter. But the entire audience is capable of finding out what they think they think already. You’ve just asked a potential audience of millions to get in touch, and then ignored them completely.

If you’re only going to use the Tweets of famous people on your programme, then you might as well ask the audience: “Send us your Tweets, and if you’re a professional sportsperson or once appeared on The Apprentice we’ll read them out!”

Or frankly don’t ask anyone at all to send in their thoughts.

You’re not “engaging” the audience by asking them to participate and then ignoring them when they do so.

Some TV presenters can be particularly poor at using social media in their programmes. Perhaps it’s because you need to create a quick graphic on-screen? Or because people’s handles don’t easily identify them: with a phone call you have “Steve from Leeds”; on Twitter you have “@laughingboy1992.” Not easy to use if they’re trying to make a serious point about something.

The other issue is that the programme’s running order is packed, and having asked the audience up front to contribute, nobody has time to read anything back out because you’re out of time.

Make time. Otherwise don’t ask.

Or try to be clever and use some kind of sentiment analysis of responses to a particular question. Then dash through some of them. Radio football phone-ins tend to be pretty good at piling through a load of responses quickly.

Yes, you might be deluged with comments. But you did ask for them! You need staff to be able to sift through to bring interesting contributions to the audience.

But if you’re not going to use social media properly as part of your programme, then don’t bother. You wouldn’t repeatedly give out the phone number for your phone-in if you’ve already got about 50 calls lined up on the switchboard. If you do that, you know that you’re just annoying listeners who haven’t got a hope of getting through to the studio. So treat the social audience the same.

(Oh, and you might at least want to have someone in the office favouriting or retweeting good comments, even if they’re not going to make it to air.)

Why I’m Not Installing Facebook Messenger

For a blog

Facebook and I have an interesting relationship.

I’ve been on it quite some time, and have lots of “friends” (more accurately, friends and acquaintances). However, I do find it useful for keeping up with what this extended group are up to. And if you’re organising a social event, then it’s a useful resource to help you out. You can share pictures or video relatively painlessly, and you can send messages to your “friends”.

On the other hand, it has some of the most tortuous settings in any website or application I use. And it changes these regularly. So you’re never totally certain how many people you’re sharing something with.

If you’re the kind of person only wants some people and not everyone to be able to read or view something (happily I’m not, but then I’m not 15 with parents and grandparents also on the service), this is quite a palaver.

And then there’s all that Facebook data that they’re tracking to monetise it. They want to know everything about you, and given the personal data you share in your status updates (even ones you type but don’t post), you’re giving them a very valuable insight into your world. Their newest plan is to do a Shazam-style analysis on any media you play with your portable device so they know more about your music and video watching habits.

But you’ve made the pact with the devil. Who cares if they know what artists I like, or which TV shows I’m discussing with friends? I mean – this stuff doesn’t matter. It’s not like I talk about serious stuff on the internet or anything…

None of which really explains the picture at the top of this page.

I have the Facebook app installed on my Android mobile phone (Nexus 5, since you ask). And what you need to know is that I have everything on it turned off. I don’t want it running in the background. I don’t want constant notifications from Facebook. I don’t want to share my contacts with it. I want as little as possible to do with it.

Partly that’s because it has been a battery-sapping mess of an application. Recently it might have improved somewhat, but I’m not going to take the risk.

Indeed, the only reason I have it installed at all is because it’s a mildly better and more convenient experience than the mobile web. But that’s about it. Incidentally, I’ve never bothered installing the Facebook app at all onto any of my tablets. That’s how little I think of it.

But then, I’m not a massive Facebook user. Most of my interactions on Facebook come because I’ve linked my Twitter account with it, and anything I post on Twitter gets carried over onto Facebook. Some people respond on Facebook, and I respond to them.

Because I don’t have a Facebook app alerting me, I tend to use that oldest of old-school techniques for determining whether someone is talking with me – email. I’m happy to receive as many notifications via email as Facebook wants to send me, because I use filters and rules to put them into a sub-folder keeping my inbox clutter-free.

Now it’s true that Facebook emails are pretty terrible. Perhaps deliberately so? It may send an alert within minutes, but quite often it’s hours, or even days after the event. Well their loss. I guess I spend less time on the platform because they can’t be bothered to put the infrastructure in place to keep me up to speed.

Still, as I say, I do occasionally use Facebook to message people. While email is my primary communication mechanism, I don’t always have an up to date email address of everyone I want to communicate with. So like Direct Messages in Twitter, I will occasionally send a message. Perhaps more often, I receive messages from others who like to use that facility.

But what I don’t want to do is chat.

I’m not 12.

OK. That’s a bit mean-spirited.

But I find chat can be quite disruptive. There’s an expectation that someone is available for an instant reply all the time.

“Drop everything and chat with me now!”

Chat says to me that it’s more important than anything else I’m doing and since nobody can multi-task (really – they can’t), I should abandon what I’m doing to type as quickly as possible into a small box on a slightly cluttered screen.

Look. Microsoft Office email alerts are disruptive enough – “You’ve got mail! It’s more important than that document you’re writing right now, so we’ve flashed it right over where your cursor is!” – but they can be turned off. More to the point email or text messages can be responded to in a timely fashion. I.e. At my convenience.

(Sidenote: I realise some people think that texts demand instant replies. Well I have bad news for you. I often don’t even read my text messages for hours after they arrived. I’m not a doctor on call – my phone is not always besides me or even in the same room.)

When Facebook introduced chat, I switched it off. Facebook, of course, turned it on for everyone by default. That’s another problem with Facebook. And it’s why as much as anything, it’s an issue of TRUST. And I don’t trust Facebook. They’ve yet to earn that from me.

Similarly, I don’t bother with WhatsApp or any of the other numerous messaging applications. I have Skype, but it requires scheduling with me if you want a chat. It’s not running by default. Background apps sap memory and battery. I leave them off. (And incidentally, I think it’s most recent Android version of Skype that “broke” my phone, so it’s not currently even installed there).

OK – I admit that I can be reached by Google Hangouts. But there are few enough people who do that, so I’m fine with it.

All of which brings me back to Facebook’s Messenger app. Facebook sees messaging as “chat”. But I only ever used it for “email”. They consider the two the same. And that’s where we fell out. By default, if I want to send a long message – even on desktop – I get the tiniest of tiny boxes to type into. No doubt Facebook would say that the average user message is no longer than a text. Well mine are. So you’re already annoying me in the desktop environment. Now on mobile you’re making it worse.

Now Facebook has removed basic messaging functionality from its phone app. It still has an icon. But you’re “forced” to install a new app. It has been prompting me for weeks with pop-ups and banners. But now it’s gone. I should install their new app because what kind of social media site doesn’t need more than one app?

Well bad news Facebook. I’m not going to. Here’s why:

I’m not 12.

I don’t do chat.

I don’t want to be made available for Facebook chat.

I don’t like your battery hogging apps in general.

I don’t like the hoops and complexities of your settings.

I don’t TRUST Facebook as a company.

All I want to be able to do is read and send occasional messages in a form not dissimilar to email.

Yes – I know you could argue the same of Google Drive. They’ve recently dissembled a generic “Drive” app into constituent “Sheets” and “Docs” parts. But then reading and editing documents are very different things. And I know that it’s part of a bigger play about separating key apps from the OS because Android handset manufacturers can be very tardy rolling out OS updates. That all said, I’m not 100% won over by Google either.

And yes, I realise that I’m using a completely free service, and nobody is forcing me to use Facebook. As I say, I do like some of their functionality. I just don’t buy into everything they do. Quite a lot of it actually. And their view of messaging/chat in particular.

I completely understand that other operators – notably Google – are just as good at hoovering up vast amounts of data including some of the most personal things I talk about because they’re my email provider. I suppose I just trust Facebook less.

I’ve been using the Moves app on my phone a lot recently. It’s a great app that uses your phone’s accelerometer and GPS to determine your location and how far you’ve walked, run or cycled. But when Facebook bought them, that didn’t exactly fill me with excitement, even though when they wrote to me, Moves explicitly stated that they weren’t rolling accounts together. (Well, not yet).

I like Moves. But installing would instantly extend my battery life by up to a third. And do I TRUST Facebook with my location data? I’m not sure that I do…