I know how everyone talks about Facebook being a “walled garden” and all that, but am I right that there’s now a way you can actually download all your personal information from the Facebook site? I’d love to do that so I have a backup of my account, friend lists, etc, so any help you can offer would be terrific, Dave!
Ah yes, the old “walled garden” problem. I think this is a concept propagated by the open source groups, actually, the idea that even if I join a private site – even if I pay for that membership – I want to be able to get all of my information back out so I can move to a competing site at any time. If everything were a public service, this would be a great idea, but since we actually live in a more commercial world, I’ve never really seen the logic of a company both creating a fabulous private world and leaving the doors open so people can easily wander away any time they’d like.
Having said that, I’m also a long-time member of Facebook and it’s all too easy to assume that what it displays to me is all the information it has on me and that leaving Facebook would mean that I lose it all, including my friend lists, wall posts, etc. Not so cool.
Fortunately, while Facebook hasn’t released a “Facebook data parsing and import standard” (which would make no sense to me) the company has recently announced that there is indeed a new feature that lets you export all of your personal data from Facebook and keep a copy of it on your own system. It’s not a single data file, though, so it’s going to be quite a trick to parse and analyze if another company wants to offer easy import, but that’s not their goal anyway.
Rather than opine about this, however, let’s just jump in and I’ll show you what’s involved. Then we’ll come back to the value of the data later.
To start out, log in to your Facebook account and go to the Account menu:
Choose “Account Settings” and scroll down, looking for:
It’s the last option we’re interested in, “Download your Information”. Click on the oddly named “learn more” link and now we can get this show started!
Smart. They point out that, correctly, anything you’ve posted to Facebook will then be on your computer, unencrypted, and anyone who gains access to that set of files also gains access to what’s likely a lot of very personal information. My suggestion: download it all, then wrap it up in an encrypted ZIP archive or similar if you’re worried.
Click on “Download” and…
One more click and you’ll get a sense of just how much work is involved on the backend for Facebook to be able to accomplish this massive data dump:
Okay, so it’s time to go do something else. Why not become a fan of Ask Dave Taylor by clicking the “Like” button on the Ask Dave Taylor Fan Page on Facebook? Sweet!
If you did go back to this area, you’ll find you can’t start up the process again. It knows:
Eventually you’ll get a notification like this one I received in my Gmail inbox:
Clicking on the link doesn’t initiate a data transfer, however, but gets you to yet more disclaimers:
They’ll confirm you are the valid account holder (a good thing!):
One more warning (you certainly can’t criticize them for not telling you that the information you’re downloading is of a very personal nature):
Now, finally, are you ready? Click on “Download Now” and you’ll find that it’s downloaded from Facebook as a convenient ZIP archive (though not password protected, which would be a splendid additional touch):
Mine is pretty darn big: 26MB of text information. It took a few minutes, actually.
The question is really whether the information is useful on a standalone basis, and I really have to give Facebook lots of credit for creating a very useful, easily understood archive. I double-clicked the ZIP file to unpack it, and then opening the base HTML file showed me this:
From here everything’s linked together, so clicking on “Photos”, “Friends”, “Notes”, etc will bring up a full archive from the day you joined Facebook. Nice. Now, for a script that automatically requests and downloads a copy of this on a monthly basis.
Hope that helps you out. Whether other companies are going to be able to unpack and parse this ZIP data and/or even just your friend lists remains to be seen, but this is a great step in the right direction of Facebook acknowledging that the data we put on their site is still our own personal data and we should be able to extract it from that mythical walled garden. I don’t expect a garden in the middle of a field, so it’s a good compromise. Good luck!