Don’t be surprised Facebook knows you so well

Last week I took part in the latest fad taking the internet by storm — downloading a folder of all the data Facebook has on me. I’d read several reports of jaw-dropping file sizes with spine-chilling precision of detail, especially from people who thought they’d limited their social media use and protected their data. I, by contrast, am a Facebook addict, and make no effort to protect my information beyond a strong password, so I braced myself for the worst.

It took my laptop about 20 minutes to download a 3.4 GB folder of all my data, the largest I’d heard about by a long shot. Most of that 3.4 GB folder consisted of eight years worth of Facebook posts, photos, videos and messages, but that’s not the juicy content I wanted to see. I wanted to pore over the measly 16 KB file titled “ads,” and I wanted to know which companies were stalking me and what they knew about me.

It turns out they know a lot about me, but it’s nothing you couldn’t figure out from reading my Facebook profile. Believe it or not, I talk about the things I like and follow pages and people that also talk about those things. Similarly, many of the companies with my contact information were groups I either currently or previously liked on Facebook. It makes getting to know me easy for a massive hunk of code like Facebook.

I know I offer myself like a sacrificial lamb to the data gods at Facebook, but I think the average Facebook user is more like me than meets the eye. My feed is full of friends sharing memes, puppies, recipes, politics and much more, all tucked away under “Friends only” privacy settings, as if it’ll protect them from the evil advertisement companies harvesting their data. Nowadays, these friends also post on Facebook how much they value protecting their data, which, ironically, Facebook is keeping in their records and selling to those same companies.

Part of me wants to sympathize with the typical Facebook user. Maybe it’s not fair to judge people for taking a “Friends only” privacy setting at its word or not reading Facebook’s terms and conditions before clicking “I agree.” At the same time, I think it’s incredibly shortsighted for Facebook users to share their lives on the internet and then act surprised when Facebook takes everything they’ve posted and analyzes it. Based on my file, it’s not as if Facebook stores any information outside of their website and operations. It’s not like Facebook is a stalker.

If you’re going to share your life’s story with Facebook, don’t be surprised when Facebook knows you so well. You’re its main source.