A few months ago, Facebook did something so shocking and stupid that it left me no choice but to leave Facebook. For good.
Up until that time I have enjoyed Facebook for what it is. It’s a great way to keep up with friends from school and work and overseas. Frankly, I have avoided these kinds of social media web apps, but the first tipoff that FB was actually useful came when Texas uberblogger Gary Denton announced that he was abandoning his Easter Lemming blogs in order to focus on Facebook. Amazing! Soon, too, I found a lot of the same link-sharing which I normally did on my blog could be done just as easily on Facebook — and more people would read it too. I also found that I was learning about lots of new URLs and essays through Facebook which I’d normally learn about through bloggers. Suddenly FB was a better source for content than bloggers were.
If you think of it, Facebook is nothing more than a microblogging platform with a little bit of messaging and relationship management thrown in. It’s not rocket science, and for news junkies and readers, you could follow lots of people and content sources by RSS feeds. But most Americans never paid attention to RSS feeds, plus you had lots of news sources not allowing full feeds (a real pain for readers). Even when things started moving into mobile platforms, few people used naked RSS readers, instead obtaining their content by “Liking” things on Facebook or using an intermediary like Flipboard to browse through cool stuff.
I could talk about some things which annoyed me about Facebook. (such as everchanging privacy controls, unsafe third party apps and difficulty suppressing trolls and promiscuous posters). But for the most part FB was doing many things right. More importantly, 2 or 3 years ago Facebook introduced a personal archive of your data which you can download for safekeeping.
Swell. Every two or three months I would request another personal archive to be made, and shortly thereafter I would receive via email a link to a zip file containing my data in html form. This is a case where everything worked exactly as expected. All my data was there and easy to find offline. I could easily refer to it and look things up on it. I found that I did that often. I posted some of my things onto Facebook just in case.
But around June 2013, I began to notice that the latest zip of the FB archives was missing stuff. At first, I attributed it to a bug. Facebook is a gigantic system always in flux, and I had read reports that the archiving feature was causing problems for many users. Give it time, I thought.
Then, I noticed that my latest personal archive no longer included the URLs to the links I was making to my facebook posts. Let me explain. One “trick” about Facebook is that when you paste a link into the posting space, FB will automatically discover the Title, Summary and preview image of the link in question. In fact, you can even delete the URL you posted and Facebook will still keep the link in your wall post. It’s a really cool thing, and if you think about it, why does the tiny wallpost form need to include URLs when you already have the preview as a hyperlink?
I had been embedding links into Facebook wall posts that way for over a year now. But now I discover that not only were my personal archives missing comments from others, Facebook had also stripped out every single link I had added. It had also removed all my friends’ comments by friends to my posts as well as my own comments. Bastards!
The Old Facebook Archives
Here is what the old Personal Archives used to look like for my wall. In this particular screenshot you don’t see comments by others, but in fact, specific posts in my archives do include comments by others (depending on their privacy settings).
The “New and Improved” Personal Facebook Archive
Stripped of all my links, none of the posts make sense, and my own comments are removed.
My original descriptions are there, only the links are nowhere to be seen!
There is a way to keep the URls so that they can (for now) be included in personal archives. That is to leave the URL’s in the status bar. But even when you do this, the links themselves will no longer be “clickable.”
Furthermore, comments are removed totally from the archives. I can understand not showing comments by OTHERS (if it conflicts with a user’s privacy settings). But I do not understand why it has removed MY OWN COMMENTS to MY OWN POSTS!
Again, the personal archive from last year did EVERYTHING perfectly. Now let’s look at the monstrosity that motivated FB to ruin its own archiving capability.
Facebook Activity Log: Disaster in search of a problem
Facebook introduced something called the Activity Log. I don’t know why they did it; I’m sure there is some crass commercial motivation behind it; never mind about that.
The fig leaf behind this function is that it’s supposed to make it easier for users to look up past posts. This is a worthy goal; Facebook has always been horrible about having to look up anything older than a week old. I have probably spent hours continuously clicking the More button just to find some link I posted a few months ago.
But here’s the thing. When FB introduced the Activity log, it seems that that they also crippled the personal archive.
Now let’s look at that some post I made about the presidential debate in the Activity Log.
Everything is posted in unthreaded reverse chronological order without including user comments, making it practically impossible to understand the context of the original remarks.
That means: if you posted on a controversial topic on Friday and on Tuesday someone makes a comment on that same thread (or maybe you do too), any of your other activity in the intervening time will be mixed in with it.
Facebook has a helpful table describing exactly how they are screwing you. Here is the relevant listing of what from your wall posts they will be saving:
What’s the Alternative?
Facebook is where everyone is at, so we can’t just leave Facebook willy-nilly, can we?
Or can we?
Google Plus is a newer and cleaner alternative to Facebook. It is not as full featured as Facebook (and doesn’t have 1/10 of the users), but it has some other cool features. Plus, you can’t beat it as an integrated solution.
More relevant to today’s post, Google has made a full commitment to data liberation. Here’s what they say:
For this reason, we always encourage people to ask these three questions before starting to use a product that will store their data:
- Can I get my data out in an open, interoperable, portable format?
- How much is it going to cost to get my data out?
- How much of my time is it going to take to get my data out?
The ideal answers to these questions are:
- Nothing more than I’m already paying.
- As little as possible.
Google Plus has a free service called Google Takeout which lets you export ALL of your data out of the web application. That includes not only Google Plus, but also Google Docs, Blogger, etc. I haven’t played that much with Google Takeout, except that it does exactly what it says it does. I noticed that Google Plus archives are exported as individual html files. So your archive will accumulate dozens (if not hundreds) So each individual post is a separate html file. That is inconvenient, yes, but at least I’m not losing any data here. Sure, it’s not as easy to search through in offline mode, but a single grep command in linux or a good text editor could probably help you find what you want easily.
For me as a writer, I want to keep a record of as much as possible. I never gave free web apps the right to hide my own data from me. It no longer makes sense to use Facebook if I can no longer know for sure if I can export my data outside of Facebook.
The Post-Facebook and Post-Google-Plus Era
I jumped pretty quickly onto blogging and other web services. Probably in about 2006-8, things changed. Smart phones came and with that came producing and receiving content from your phone. Then Facebook came — which managed to straddle both desktop and mobile devices.
Now we are entering a phase where we want to repurpose content into other platforms. You may have noticed that many people automatically re-publish their twitter posts or blog posts to facebook or to twitter. (To say nothing of instagram, etc). I used to find that very annoying — especially because things reposted in Facebook seemed ill-formatted or inappropriate for it. For example, I wouldn’t want to repost all my blogposts onto Facebook (although I feel differently about doing so on Google Plus).
I don’t heavily use Evernote, but the concept is alluring: it can keep archived versions of certain web pages as well as your own content. Couldn’t I just store all my content streams there?
I have discovered two services which deal with cross-posting things onto multiple platforms.
First, there is HootSuite, a tool online marketers use to republish content onto multiple platforms. Which only raises the question: if you are creating your content originally in Hootsuite, how do you archive your Hootsuite content?
Second, there is IFTTT (short for If This, Then That) which lets you create or use different recipes to convert and publish your content from one platform to another. It basically lets you set up notifications too. Everything seems to be RSS-based, and sometimes the various platforms have special rules and restrictions which make it hard to import/export stuff. Sometimes just browsing through the known recipes can help you figure out a solution; sometimes you need to use a search engine to find what you want. Here for example is a good way to create feeds out of your Google+ posts which then can be scooped up by Facebook.
Note: this solution isn’t recipe is hosted on a third party site, so it is not likely to last too long. But for now it is the only solution I know of.
The ultimate goal for a blogger like me is to post at one place where I have full control and high confidence (like my blog) and then use customized RSS recipes to re-post certain things where relevant.
Don’t count out blogging software. With blogging software you remain in control over data; you own it, and then you simply use intermediary tools to connect things to another. I’m not sure that there’s a clean solution for replicating or backing up comments (though Disqus makes a compelling argument for outsourcing it altogether).
Of course, you need to take into consideration the specific characteristics of each platform and the nature of the audience. But I am finding that it is no longer necessary to depend on or live inside these social applications as much. Sure, I stop by Facebook. It’s certainly nice visiting old friends, but I certainly wouldn’t want to park there and create content ONLY for Facebook.
The flaw with Facebook (and other community sites) is that they succeed only with good content and mindshare. But when the good content can be found elsewhere (or anywhere!), suddenly there no longer is a compelling reason to park there. Suddenly that mindshare — which seemed to have so much self-sustaining momentum — seems to disappear. The time will soon come when more people will be reposting onto Facebook than posting. And that will be a good thing.
Postscript: Making the Blog Cool Again
A few years ago Virginia Heffernan remarked that with Facebook and Twitter, suddenly it was no longer cool to be blogging anymore. At the time I thought she was mistaken, but over time I had to admit that my blogging output was significantly less after Facebook came along. I was spending more time on longer articles, less time on casual blogging and linkdumps.
Intermediaries like IFTTT make it possible to have content originate in WordPress. But that does not solve the problem at all. Here are the issues that initially jump out:
- How can a personal blog or website feature both short content and long content without making the site itself unusable? (The theme would have to do this, you’d need better front page management and you’d need to have separate content types probably).
- What are the rules for displaying short content on the various platforms? What images show up? How many characters? Does the link show up, etc?
- How do you make it easy for people on one platform to see comments people have made on other platforms?
About the first question, bloggers have typically made linkdump pages on a daily/weekly basis, but does that solve the problem? One thing fun about FB/G+ is that the posts are really short. There’s really no elegant way to repurpose a linkdump post onto facebook. I need time to think this through…..