F’ed Over: What happens when Facebook closes your account.

I’ve lost valued connections, my advertising campaign is in limbo, and I’m questioning why I trusted them in the first place.

Update: Thanks to getting the story spread, my account is back. More at the bottom.

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Sometime in the night between Thursday and Friday, Facebook shut down my account. I was presented with the following message:

Account Disabled
Your account was removed from Facebook because we found it’s pretending to be someone else. Learn more about our policies and how to tell us if you think we made a mistake.

I suspect that this is the result of retaliation. A day or two earlier, two friends independently informed me of a profile that had shown up in their “People You May Know” list. This profile was using a photo of me but a different name (I’m sure you’re curious. He called himself “Big John.” Barf.) and claiming to be located in Australia. This is not the first time something like this has happened to me or my husband. I didn’t get too upset about it. I just reported the profile as an imposter and it was quickly removed.

But I woke up on Friday to a frozen account.

A few notes about me, for background:

I’m an easy person to fact-check. I lead a fairly public life. I live in a tiny village, where most people know me. I’m married to the star of a long-running home design show on A&E. We frequently speak at home and garden shows and to media outlets. We have a home decor company that, in addition to bearing our names, is built around our identities, with our photos on the masthead. We have a home improvement web series, have had our homes and projects featured in national magazines and dozens of design blogs, and I regularly write about and share photos of my life, travels, and dog. I have a long, long online trail.

I’m not a technophobe. This sounds pretentious, but I was writing software for the cloud before it was called “the cloud.” I’ve developed social networks and identity verification schemes. Am I a great programmer? No. But I get social platforms and the challenges they face.

I’m a fan of Facebook. I think their platform has succeeded for good reasons. While it can be frustrating, I think they have demonstrated savvy and prescience in building an empire that is valuable, engaging, and generally a force for good.

The first joke

The first joke everyone makes when you tell them Facebook erased you is, “I hope your FarmVille crops don’t die.” Or, “I bet you’ll miss all those cat photos and political rants.”

But Facebook is more than just a scrolling page of status updates.

It’s how I communicate — exclusively in many cases — with my friends and family, the vast majority of whom live thousands of miles away. I have a couple of friends and relatives in the hospital right now; Facebook is my sole method for communicating with them.

It’s how I log in to dozens of sites and applications. Losing my Facebook account has broken these accounts; whether they and the data they contain will be gone forever is an unknown at this point.

It’s how I engage with my customers on social media. We’ve worked hard to create a following, engage potential customers, and provide customer support using Facebook’s business pages. Much of this is now inaccessible because it all tied to my account.

It’s the commenting platform for many of my websites. I’ve built a dozen sites that rely on Facebook for blog comments. These pages are now broken because, as you guessed, they are tied to my account.

It’s a place I buy advertising. That’s right — I am one of the very few users that actually pays Facebook. I’m not the biggest advertiser in the world, but I’ve spent somewhere between the cost of your computer and the cost of your car on Facebook display advertising and promoted posts. I have two campaigns running right now. Or are they running? Am I being charged for something I cannot even access? Will I ever be able to turn it off? Or will I just have to report Facebook to AmEx?

Anyway, who cares if all I’m using it for is looking at cat photos? Facebook’s users are its product, but there is an inequity of value. We invest time creating our social network, cultivating a presence, and handing over a stunning quantity of information, so that Facebook can charge advertisers to talk to us. But you are not Rebecca from Trenton or Julie from Charlotte to Facebook. You are just one of 2.6 million users in the “Savvy Moms” demographic. And for them, losing one savvy mom just isn’t worth worrying about.

As email has become relegated to business use, phone numbers have become quasi-disposable, and most social networks have withered on the vine, Facebook has become the de-facto way to connect. They’ve aggressively expanded into every form of communication possible, tying all of that data and all of those conduits to a single account.

But my email server won’t suddenly decide I’m not me and cease functioning. The contacts list in my phone won’t one morning lock me out. My phone won’t stop calling people because it doesn’t believe that I am Chris. We rely on these systems because they behave in predictable ways. Facebook’s goal to replace these many services is all fine so long as the system remains working; if shit goes down, you’re far better off having distributed your risk across a variety of independent platforms.

They want to create a timeline, a scrapbook, for us. A week ago, I would have said that this is wonderful. Some of the most special, treasured moments in my life have been shared with friends via Facebook, and I enjoyed having that history accessible. But now, this information is locked away. My history — my identity — has been erased.

Could Facebook not know who I am?

No. They know my age. They know my residential history. They know my phone number, which I got before I was old enough to buy beer. I didn’t tell them which year I graduated high school, but I’m sure they’ve already inferred it from my birthdate, school, and friends list. They’ve been tracking IP addresses for quite awhile and use that to determine my approximate location (no, you do not have to enable app-based location reporting for this; your computer’s IP address is enough to get an approximate location — for example, the IP of our cable modem reports as a village a few minutes away from us.) Because I am an advertiser, they have my credit cards on file, including billing name and address. If I were an imposter, this would be a massive identity theft case and my cards would certainly have been turned off. But I am not an imposter, so the cards work just fine. My bank has not called me. Because they know I’m me.

Have I been foolish to depend on Facebook?

In retrospect? Of course. But having done nothing to cause this, I had the reasonable expectation of continued service. I had assumed that any such action would be taken after a warning or request for verification. Or, worst case, if an account was shut down without warning, turning it back on would be done with haste. I guess what I’m saying is that Facebook is not behaving in the way that one would expect of a business. We all trash Comcast for terrible customer service, but Comcast at least has a phone number. Comcast at least has email addresses and responds to tweets. Talking to Facebook is like talking to the proverbial brick wall — unresponsive, uncaring, inert. Worse than Comcast…they just ice you out.

While we’re all familiar with how and why to back up our computers and phones, the concept of backing up cloud content is half-baked. Yes, Facebook has an experimental feature allowing you to download a dump of your data. I did it a year ago out of curiosity. It’s a mess.

Data rendered into flat HTML files is not portable. While it’s better than nothing, I cannot import a dump from Facebook into Twitter or Ello or whatever comes next. It is not an analog to restoring a backup to a replacement iPhone.

So, yes, I’ve been a bit foolish. But there’s been no reason to doubt them until now.

How do I feel about Facebook now?

This may sound silly, but it feels like I’ve lost something valuable. A lot of my memories were in that system. Hundreds of friendships I’d built, thousands of followers I interacted with every day, tens of thousands of messages exchanged, tons of photos, even a few short pieces of writing that I was proud of. All gone, perhaps forever, without explanation or justification or recourse.

I still think Facebook is great in principle. It’s great for connecting with people — hell, it’s how I met husband Roger. I think it’s great for businesses, too. I really like advertising with Facebook, and it’s one of the few tools for small businesses that can connect you with prospective customers in a way that is pretty positive all around. (I get that nobody likes advertising, but it would be hard to argue with the tasteful nature of their platform.)

It would be easy to say Facebook is evil. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think they’re incompetent mixed with uncaring. Which, for a platform I have entrusted with tremendous quantities of personal information, is more damning. If they can easily be fooled by some loser trying to get back at me for flagging his bogus account, why should I trust them with my credit card or personal data? Why should anyone?

What will happen?

I have no idea. They haven’t responded to the photo of my driver’s license that I provided. They haven’t explained who or why my account was flagged. They haven’t provided any timeline for resolution, or responded in any way beyond a form letter. They have no functioning email addresses, do not respond to tweets, and have no listed phone number. I am in limbo.

At this point, my only hope is in getting Facebook’s attention by sharing my story. I hate doing this, because it seems petty and complainy, but I have no recourse. So, if you’ve read this far, I have a few requests:

1. Seriously question using Facebook for advertising campaigns or pages, unless you have a backup account with the authority to access the campaigns/pages. The fact that a personal account can so easily be shut down is the Achilles heel of their platform. This is a huge weakness that they need to fix if they want their advertising platform to be taken seriously.

2. Do not trust them. Get backup contact information for your friends. Save photos and anything important on your computer. Anyone with an ax to grind can report your profile, and some moron deep in the belly of the Facebook beast flips a switch to kill your account. If you value it at all, either do not entrust it to Facebook or at minimum retain copies on your local computer.

3. Share my story. I know, this is selfish of me. But I have basically no hope of getting my account back without spreading this story. I know you’re constantly asked to share sob stories on social media, and as sob stories go this isn’t even the best one. But if this ridiculousness could happen to someone as easy to identify as me, it sure as hell could happen to you and your friends. I’d really appreciate it if you could boost my signal a bit.

Thanks, and good luck,
The Real Chris Stout-Hazard

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Update: In the early hours of Sunday morning, Facebook undeleted my account after an employee saw this story via a friend-of-a-friend. Here’s the message they sent me:

Hi Chris,
It looks like your account was suspended by mistake. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience. You should now be able to log in. If you have any issues getting back into your account, please do let me know.
Thanks,
Ethan
Community Operations
Facebook

A huge thank you to everyone who has spread this to get the word out and to Facebook for giving back control of my account and ad campaign.

After having so many people share my story, I’ve heard from dozens of people who have experienced the same thing. But most of them haven’t been so fortunate to get their accounts restored. So if you are using Facebook for business, be sure to authorize multiple accounts in order to retain access to important campaigns should you get shut down. And if you’re using Facebook just personally, be sure to get off-network contact information for your friends, lest they vanish.

Thanks again. For reals.
Chris