from the such-nonsense dept
Regular readers know that I’m a believer in trying to get the big internet companies to embrace a more protocols over platforms approach, in which they’re building something that others can then build on as well, and improve in their own ways (without fear of having the rug pulled out from under them). It’s why I’m hopeful about Twitter working on just such a plan with its Bluesky project. Facebook, unfortunately, takes a very different view of the world.
While I understand that some of Facebook’s thinking around this is a reaction to what happened when it had created a more open platform for developers… and thenCambirdge Analytica happened, which has been an ongoing (if somewhat confusingly understood) black eye for the company. But Facebook has always been a bit skittish about how open it has wanted to be. Famously, it killed Power.com with an unfortunate reading of the CFAA when that company tried to create a universal login for various social media sites, and to help people not be locked in to just one social media site.
But the latest example is really horrible. Louis Barclay has a write up in Slate about how Facebook banned him for life and threatened him with a lawsuit, because he created a tool to make everyone’s Facebook experience better (though, less profitable for Facebook). The tool actually sounds quite nifty:
The tool I created, a browser extension called Unfollow Everything, allowed users to delete their News Feed by unfollowing their friends, groups, and pages. The News Feed, as users of Facebook know, is that never-ending page that greets you when you log in. It?s the central hub of Facebook. It?s also a major source of revenue.
Note that the tool doesn’t unfriend your friends, family and groups, it just unfollows them. To be honest, until reading about this, I didn’t quite realize there was a difference. The key is that if you unfollow (but keep them as friends, or stay in the groups) you can still see what’s happening, it’s just that their content doesn’t show up in your newsfeed. And if you “unfollow everything” then your newsfeed ends up blank. You can still poke around and see what your friends are posting or what’s happening in the groups you’re interested in, but it’s a proactive decision by you, rather than being pushed to you in the news feed. That’s… kinda neat.
I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable.
When I unfollowed everything for the first time, I did it manually. I spent hours using a Facebook-provided feature to click unfollow on each of my friends, groups, and pages. I quickly realized that very few people would go to the same trouble, so I coded a simple tool that would automate the process. In July 2020, I published it to the Chrome store, where people could download it for free.
As I said… kinda neat.
But, of course, Facebook didn’t feel that way. It freaked out.
Then, a few months ago, Facebook sent me a cease-and-desist letter. The company demanded that I take down the tool. It also told me that it had permanently disabled my Facebook account?an account that I?d had for more than 15 years, and that was my primary way of staying in touch with family and friends around the world. Pointing to a provision in its terms of service that purports to bind even former users of Facebook, Facebook also demanded that I never again create a tool that interacts with Facebook or its many other services in any way.
That’s fucked up on multiple levels. First off, Louis wasn’t doing anything that users couldn’t all do themselves. He was just automating it and making it easier. So how could that possibly violate anything? Furthermore, he was simply utilizing the features Facebook gives everyone. How could that possibly deserve this kind of reaction?
Yes, obviously, Facebook doesn’t like the idea of people no longer using the news feed, but it seems likely that it’s only a very small percentage of folks actually doing this kind of thing. Suck it up and deal with it. In the long run, it could actually be better if it helps people like Louis, who are concerned about how much they use Facebook, to keep using it rather than going away from Facebook (well, not Louis any more, since he’s banned).
Second, it’s always a bad look when you threaten and punish people who are simply trying to build on your service to make it better for some users. It reminds me when Craigslist sued a company for also making Craigslist better. No matter how you spin it, it’s a bad look.
Third, giving him a lifetime ban? Come on. That’s just being punitive for the sake of being punitive. It seems clear that Louis likes Facebook in general and the ability to connect with his friends and family — he just didn’t like the news feed. Giving him a lifetime ban just seems ridiculously excessive, and insanely petty. Yes, I know that Facebook is constantly on the lookout for scams and hacks that might impact site integrity, but this tool is not that.
Fourth, telling him that he can “never again create a tool that interacts with Facebook”? That’s just beyond overkill. It’s also unnecessarily punitive, and also seems like an incredibly broad reading of the company’s terms of service.
In a more ideal world, we’d see companies like Facebook encouraging more app builders to create tools that make Facebook’s experience better for everyone — and allowing differentiated services like this. Some people would feel better off without the news feed. Louis was creating a tool to make it easier for people to do that so they don’t have to do it manually. He didn’t break any thing. He didn’t harm the site’s integrity. And Facebook flipped out.
As I was thinking about this story, I kept thinking about Block Party, a very cool app I’ve talked about in the past, which makes it easier for people on Twitter to deal with abuse and harassment, by having it automute certain types of users (there’s a lot more to it). In that case, it seems like Twitter is happy to have Block Party create tools that make their users’ lives better, even though it might lead to less interaction on Twitter itself. But the end result is, hopefully, a healthier experience. Facebook could do the same and could encourage developers to build better tools for users to create more differentiated experiences.
Instead, with its single-minded focus on revenue and growth, it punishes the guy who was simply making use of Facebook’s own features to make lives better.
Oh, yeah, there’s one more element to this story which also might explain Facebook’s reaction — not that it makes Facebook look any better. It makes it look worse.
A few months after I published Unfollow Everything, academics at the University of Neuch?tel, in Switzerland, expressed interest in using it to study the News Feed?s impact on the amount of time spent on Facebook and the happiness of the platform?s users. We began working together. The university recruited people to join two study groups: one where participants deleted their News Feeds using Unfollow Everything, and a control group where participants left their feeds intact. Participants agreed to share limited and anonymous information?specifically, the amount of time they spent on Facebook, the number of times they visited the site, and the number of friends, groups, and pages they were following and not following, both in total and broken down by category. (For regular Unfollow Everything users, the only Facebook-related data shared was the ratio of followed profiles to total profiles, a metric that helped me ensure the tool was working.)
Facebook has a really, really contentious relationship with academics trying to study the platform. You’ll remember how it recently shut down the accounts of NYU researchers for building a tool to get access to useful data Facebook refuses to share. And, of course, the recent whistleblower revelations show that the company isn’t always keen to see research that makes the company’s products look bad get out into the world.
If the reason that Facebook freaked out about Unfollow Everything was the fact that it might allow academics to study the impact of the news feed, then that’s even more messed up. Let them study your damn service, Facebook.
Filed Under: browser extension, extensions, louis barclay, platforms, threats, unfollow everything
Companies: facebook, instagram