I Downloaded All 840MB of My Facebook Data. It Was Boring, Baffling, and a Bit Scary.

If an online product is free, then you are what’s for sale.

So true!

With Facebook and other free social networking sites, everything you post or do or like or share or join becomes a data point that serves to identify your interests that can then be sold to marketers. It’s something we all agree to when we click the little checkbox next to the legalese that few of us bother to read.

With the various Facebook data breaches over the past year such as the one involving Cambridge Analytica, I wanted to see just what data Facebook has collected from me in the decade I’ve used the service. I recently downloaded everything they’ve got on me including such data as all my current friends, people who have requested to be friends, removed friends, people I have asked to be friends, messages, likes, photos, search history, and much, much more.

It’s easy to download your own data. Just go to Facebook Settings > Your Facebook Information > Download Your Information. Once you’ve made the request, you’ll get an initial email confirmation and then some time later (perhaps a few weeks or a month), you will get a zip file with everything they have on you.

I was amazed there was 840 MB of data delivered to me. Much of the large data files were videos and photos. But the sheer number of individual pieces of data collected over a decade such as my likes, comments, and whatnot is extensive indeed.

Most of the data was mundane, like Facebook knows I am a fan of the Grateful Dead. Well, yeah. True. Other data they had on me was downright weird. I must have searched for “Allosaurus” at some point because that is a keyword that Facebook ads target me with.

I have changed the way I use Facebook based on my data

Since digging into my data, I am way more careful about how I use Facebook for fear that some or all could end up in the wrong hands (again). My personal information was shared with and used by Cambridge Analytica. I’m not like some people who have completely deleted their Facebook accounts, I’m still a user of the service. But I don’t go very often, and I think before I interact.

One bit of data that gave me pause was my responses to event invitations including my status as “Attending”, “Maybe”, “Interested”, and “Not Going”. It seems to me that the status of my interest in various events is not something I would want to get into the wrong hands.

The scariest aspect of reviewing my data was seeing that I had authorized Facebook apps developed by third parties to see my data have my permission to post on my behalf. It seems that I gave permission, via check boxes, to share those permissions with third party app developers. Apparently, some of the Facebook apps have actually done so, including one app I do not recall every having heard of posting as me. As a result of this wakeup call, I have deauthorized all third-party Facebook apps from being able to see my data and post content for me.

Facebook ad targeting is not all that accurate

An aspect of my data that I found particularly interesting was the Ads Interests data which is “Your interests based on your Facebook activity and other actions that help us show you relevant ads”. Facebook generates many billions of dollars via advertising and I know many marketers who have large budgets for spending on Facebook ads. These marketers tell me they like Facebook advertising because it can be highly targeted.

Well, based on my own data, that’s not really true.

Some data I found in my Facebook Ads Interests are spot on such as Grateful Dead, Music, and social media. Yes, those are of interest to me. Some Facebook Ads Interests must be from long ago searches that I did as a one-time thing like Allosaurus, Boeing, and United States Olympic Committee. Those are not good keywords and phrases to pay to target me for.

There are some that are just plain weirdly wrong like “Tusk” (a 2014 film that I had never even heard of), “TV Reality Shows” (very odd since I do not watch television at all), and “Philosophy of life” (hmm… I wonder where that came from).

Any marketers out there who are boosting content to people who like “Tusk” and “TV Reality Shows” are wasting their money when I see those ads.

Facebook is revolutionary for sure. Connecting well over a billion people on the planet via a free service is remarkable. But we all have the responsibility to know what the company is doing with all the data we each generate with the service.