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How sticky is Facebook membership? Just try breaking free

How sticky is Facebook membership? Just try breaking free
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First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 12 38 AM IST
Updated: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 12 38 AM IST
Are you a member of Facebook.com? You may have a lifetime contract. Some users have discovered that it is nearly impossible to remove themselves entirely from the popular social networking site.
While the site offers users the option of deactivating their accounts, Facebook servers keep copies of the information in those accounts indefinitely. Indeed, many users who have contacted Facebook to request that their accounts be deleted have not succeeded in erasing their records. “It’s like the Hotel California,” said Nipon Das, 34, director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account. “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
It took Das two months and several email exchanges with Facebook’s customer service representatives to erase most of his information from the site, which finally occurred after he sent an email threatening legal action. But even after that, a reporter was able to find Das’ empty profile on Facebook and successfully sent him an email through the network.
The technological hurdles set by Facebook have a business rationale: They allow ex-Facebookers, who choose to return the ability, to resurrect their accounts effortlessly. According to an email from Amy Sezak, a spokeswoman for Facebook, “Deactivated accounts mean that users can reactivate (them) at any time, and their information will be available just as they left it.”
But it also means that disenchanted users cannot disappear from the site without leaving footprints. Facebook’s terms of use state that “you may remove your user content from the site at any time”, but also that “you acknowledge that the company may retain archived copies of your user content”. Its privacy policy says that after someone deactivates an account, “removed information may persist in backup copies for a reasonable period of time”. Facebook’s site does not inform departing users that they must delete information from their account in order to close it fully—meaning that they may unwittingly leave anything from email addresses to credit card numbers sitting on Facebook servers.
Only people who contact Facebook’s customer service department are informed that they must painstakingly delete, line by line, all the profile information, “wall” messages and memberships they may have created within Facebook. “Users can also have their account completely removed by deleting all of the data associated with their account and then deactivating it,” said Sezak. “Users can then write to Facebook to request their account be deleted and their emails will be completely erased from the database.”
But even users who try to delete every piece of information they have ever written, sent or received via the network, have found their efforts, to permanently leave, stymied. Other social networking sites such as MySpace and Friendster, may require departing users to confirm their wishes several times—but in the end they offer a delete option. “Most sites, even online dating sites, will give you an option to wipe your slate clean,” Das said. Das, who joined Facebook on a whim after receiving invitations from friends, tried to leave after realizing that most of his co-workers were also on the site. “I work in a small office,” he said. “The last thing I want is people going there and checking out my private life. I did not want to be on it after junior associates at work, whom I have to manage, saw my stuff,” he said.
Facebook’s quiet archiving of information from deactivated accounts has increased concerns about the network’s potential abuse of private data, especially in the wake of its fumbled Beacon advertising feature.
That application, which tracks and publishes the items bought by Facebook members on outside websites, was introduced in November without a transparent, one-step, opt-out feature. After a public backlash, including more than 50,000 Facebook users’ signatures on a MoveOn.org protest petition, Facebook executives apologized and allowed such an opt-out option on the program.
Tensions remain between making a profit and alienating Facebook users who, the company says, total about 64 million worldwide. The network is still trying to find a way to monetize its popularity, mostly by allowing marketers access to its wealth of demographic and behavioural information.
Steven Mansour, 28, a Canadian online community developer, spent two weeks in July trying to fully delete his account from Facebook. He later wrote a blog entry—including emails, diagrams and many exclamations of frustration—in a post titled “2504 steps to closing your Facebook account” (www.stevenmansour.com).
Mansour, who said he is “really skeptical of social networking sites”, decided to leave Facebook after a few months. “I was getting tired of always getting alerts and emails,” he said.
“I found it very invasive. It’s part of a much bigger picture of social networking sites on the Internet harvesting private data, whether for marketing or for more sinister purposes,” he said. His post, which wound up on the link aggregator Digg.com, has been viewed more than 87,000 times, Mansour said, adding that the traffic was so high that it crashed his server. And his post became the touchstone for Magnus Wallin (a patent examiner), who was inspired to create a group, “How to permanently delete your Facebook account,” after joining, leaving and then rejoining Facebook, only to find that all of his information from his first account was still available.
“I wanted the information to be available inside Facebook for all the users who wanted to leave, and quite a few people have found it just by using internal search,” Wallin said. He said he has heard that some people have successfully used his steps. But he is not yet ready to leave himself. “Someday when I want to leave, I want it to be simple.”
©2008/The New York Times
PS: Facebook has now introduced a form on the site for users who want to delete their accounts permanently. See Related Article
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First Published: Wed, Feb 20 2008. 12 38 AM IST