I took Zuckerberg’s advice and I regret everything
I CAN vividly remember the day I first joined Facebook.
Where I was, which friend I was talking about it to on the landline phone of my mum's old house, hearing myself saying that it was no MySpace, and that I didn't think it had staying power. But still, I made a half-hearted profile, added as many friends as I could find, and, the rest, as they say, is history.
That was a little under ten years ago, and now like so much else, Facebook has changed a lot, and, as it happens, sold many of our changes off to third parties such as Cambridge Analytica.
But during his congressional testimony this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg provided some fascinating information.
"We have a 'Download Your Information' tool where you can go get a file of all the content there and then do whatever you want with it," Zuckerberg told Louisiana Senator John Kennedy during his five-hour-long questioning.
Like Kennedy, until then, I had no idea that this function existed. And so like many others currently questioning their use of Facebook over the years and what information it may or may not have retained about me, I decided to use Zuckerberg's now easy-to-locate took and take a look at what information the social media site had accumulated one me in the decade since I joined.
'What harm could it do?' I thought to myself. This will be like finding an old journal from high school or something, surely.
As it stands today, I would best described as a moderate user of Facebook. I post links to articles I like, maybe update my status once every few weeks, and like or comment on the posts of friends every few days. But in the early days of its Australian launch, I was mad for it. All of my friends and I were; it was, after all, revolutionary.
The first sign that this would be less rose-coloured amble down memory lane and more The Reckoning came as soon as I began to download the zip file of my data. While a colleague's took just minutes, mine took almost half an hour. 'It's probably just because I have a lot of photos,' I thought.
Unfortunately for me, that was part of it, but it certainly wasn't all of it.
Initially, I found some gems of information like my first ever status (Katy Hall is Mani and Mani wants sherbet - what this meant, I have absolutely no idea), my first profile photo (sporting braces, a fancy dress costume and the kind of 2007 indie-pop fringe people dream about erasing from history), the message history of a conversation between me and my first boyfriend (corny, but sweet).
There was also the kind of information that, while isn't incriminating or particularly damaging to me, could best be described as creepy. A log of every active session I've ever had on Facebook, for example. A log of every messenger conversation ever conducted from my account. A list of all the 'pokes' I've ever received.
The most distressing discovery came, though, when I decided to look at what ad topics Facebook had targeted to me. Some of them were right on the money (Rihanna, ice-cream, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), while others were a little harder to understand (Tamil Cinema, Orlando Magic, Rhythm and Blues music). But at the very top of this list containing around 100 topics was Lenny Kravitz.
Now, I mean no disrespect to him personally, but I don't like Lenny Kravitz. Not Heather Graham 'American Woman' Lenny Kravitz, not 3am drunk karaoke 'Are You Gonna Go My Way?' Lenny Kravitz, not even 'oops my leather pants split open and my pierced penis fell out while onstage' Lenny Kravitz.
So how did Lenny Kravitz come to be the top rating ad topic on my profile?
One summer back in 2011, I was sexually assaulted by someone who, for reasons still unknown to me, later decided to ask me out to a Lenny Kravitz concert.
In the days that followed, I mentioned this detail to two of my close friends through a private message while discussing what had happened to me. A message that, at the time, I had no idea would be later used to target advertising to me and help Facebook's revenue stream continue rolling in.
And while on a rational level I understand that it's impossible for "the algorithm" to understand these kind of nuanced situations, I can't help but feel disgustingly violated all over again seven years later.
Underneath my ad topic list was a list of advertisers who had uploaded a contact list with my information - many of whose names I didn't recognise and had never interacted with before. When questioned about this, Facebook told the New York Times that, "unfamiliar advertisers might appear on the list because they might have obtained my contact information from elsewhere, compiled it into a list of people they wanted to target and uploaded that list into Facebook."
At the start of this experiment, I had felt confident that there would be little or nothing within my information zip file that would put me off Facebook enough to actually leave the platform. After seeing this though, it's hard to reconcile why I would stay.