Here’s what happened when I tried to control my privacy on Facebook.

The problem

I joined Facebook before the days of social networks, back when you needed a university email address to get an account. It looked like a small intranet to keep in touch with the new circle of friends I was making. There was no feed, no messenger, no adverts. People talked to each other on ‘walls’. Intimate messages were left for the intended and perhaps a handful of others who might visit their profile. This was over 10 years ago.

Fast forward to now, Facebook feels almost essential. It’s become a universal tool for networking and self promotion. Instead of creating your own blog, you can post public messages on your wall and connect with products, groups, companies and ‘friends’. Yes, everyone is still your ‘friend’ and your friends still invite you to parties through this platform, but the changes are big.

So I was dumbfounded when I realised that despite the many changes to Facebook and the way it’s used, every new person I add as a ‘friend’ instantly gets access to all 10+ years of my data: all of my and my university friend’s photos, discussions, notes, maths and philosophy crises’. There’s no way to limit or switch that access off.

I decided that enough is enough and such blatant disregard for privacy would not go unchallenged.

What did I try?

First, I searched around for a feature or controls which would either limit access to my historical data for new friends or a way to change all my previous content access settings to be private or limited to a small group. No such controls exist. The best I found was a way to stop any previous public posts being public:

Likely a necessary feature for those who joined Facebook thinking it was a network for friends and only realised much much later that for new accounts all posts were public by default. Several of my friends were posting their work grievances and grudges publicly under their real name without knowing this and they were shocked when they found out.

Second, I emailed Facebook imploring them to make this possible or if at minimum, they could do the bulk post access changes at their end. At this point I was willing to settle for keeping the content on Facebook and inconveniently limit access just to me. No reply.

Third, I started ignoring new Facebook friend requests or tried to add people on LinkedIn instead. I did this to a lot of people and felt guilty about it. Often I really liked the people adding me, but felt uncomfortable going from ‘I had a really great chat with you’ to ‘Here are photos of me drunk at university and some personal details about my best friends’. It felt like a deeply unnecessary choice to make and reinforced my sense that this product didn’t have my interests or preferences in mind.

Finally, I searched for external hacks and workarounds. I looked everywhere, I even asked the internet. Mostly people did not recognise the problem and search results were unhelpful.

I finally found a chrome plugin that would manually change every privacy setting of every single existing wall/profile post to private.

However it needs access to all your posts and has to be left to run for hours (depending on the number of posts you have) — the notes and instructions of the plugin are illuminating:

The scanning/deletion process takes a LONG time to finish, depending on number of posts involved. Because Facebook (TM) does not want the users to easily remove posts, they don’t provide any function/API to delete multiple posts at a time. This extension can only filter/delete posts one-by-one. There is no any known method to accelerate this process. Please be patient, sit back, and let the extension does its job. You may have a coffee, or better just let it run through a night.
I has to deliberately slow down the batch process of privacy. When the extension is running too fast, Facebook (TM) does not process all the requests.
Facebook (TM) changed their page layout again, privacy feature no longer works. I had to disable the button of this feature.

Facebook really does not want you to delete or change the access of previous content.

In general the plugin seems to do what I was looking for, but I’m personally suspicious of plugins which aren’t open source (so could be buggy or malicious) or don’t have a respected brand taking responsibility for them so I decided to try something else.

My workaround

I attempted to create a new account. Start afresh! Try to lose both the positive and negative aspects of all that personal history, photos, conversations and data held by an external company. Bittersweet, but it seemed like the best option I had.

This was so much more painful than I imagined it would be.

Attempt One: Facebook would not let me create a new account. I would start creating an account, it would get me to pick a password, fill in my name and details, etc. Once I jumped through all the hoops, I would simply be logged into my old account. I even used slightly different email addresses and names to no avail.

I tried creating an account with my email address and variations of it and a new password from a private browser window.
I simply found myself logged in to my old account after verifying my email.

Attempt Two: I changed the email address of my old account completely. (None of this adding +text to an existing email stuff). I deactivated the original account to really remove Facebook’s temptation to ignore my attempts in creating a new account. And only when I did all this would it let me create a fresh account. Hooray.

But now I have no friends! There is no friend export functionality. No import functionality. Nothing useful.

I started searching for people’s names and adding them manually one by one. This took hours. I got bored.

I hoped recommendations would fill in the gaps — it didn’t, weirdly, despite me becoming friends with my old account. Perhaps the friend recommendation feature is bogus or deliberately unhelpful.

Finally (after a couple of weeks of simply giving up on Facebook altogether and not touching it) I realised what I had to do: first, reactivate my old account. Then, relax my privacy settings so that friends or randoms could access my friends list. Then, log into my new account from a different browser/device. Then stalk my old account and browse its friends list. Then click on ‘add friend’ 400 times. Lastly, wait, and hope.

How was it?

It was painful. It was not fun. It took a really long time. But, after all that effort, I could finally delete my old account. And still, I was still plagued with lots of my friends not trusting the new account (thinking it’s spam, shows how common spam accounts are…) or not adding me back since they log in infrequently.

This is not a good solution.

Part of me doesn’t want to lose the data and the history of my old account, while part of me feels much more free adding people to my new account knowing exactly what they’ll have access to.

Mostly a big part of me is simply sad that one of the darlings of the internet age with billions in revenue sees no need to sort this issue out.

Why doesn’t Facebook let you do this?

This is an important question more people should be asking. If Facebook are serious about privacy and controls they should at minimum:

  • Add a feature which could be enabled so that new friends only get access to future content.
  • Allow bulk updates to previous posts to limit access to an individual or group.
  • Add an export functionality using an open protocol to give people ownership of their social graph.

Hey Zuck, why not show us you’re not just feeling bad about the falling stock price, but about abusing the trust of the people who use your product and do something about personal data control?

Where next?

Fundamentally we need public digital infrastructure. Facebook should be one application among many. I should be able to choose an app with better privacy controls and business model while maintaining communication access to my network. The rise of the Facebook monopoly and lack of viable alternatives point to fundamental problems in regulation and culture. Data hoarding and monetisation of user behaviour has become the default. It’s hard to compete on price or challenge the network effect without open protocols and limits to how personal data is stored, processed and exploited. Terms and conditions need to be simpler, more transparent and offer choice.

We also have a responsibility to demand better. Facebook didn’t feel like it needed to even reply to me. Why should it — after all, who am I? I’m not the customer. I’m not paying them thousands to emotionally manipulate people into buying my product, service or influence an election. I am the passive sheep who is supposed to scroll and click and be mesmerised and addicted.