Friday, May 14, 2010

How to: Quit Facebook and keep your stuff

So all the recent privacy concerns convinced you, eh? You've weighed the pros and cons, you've read my blog posts on the subject, and you're ready to dump your account. If you're still on the fence, there's always the deactivate feature, but this merely logs you out and puts your account in "suspended animation" while you're away. As soon as you log back in, it's as if you never left.

The other option is to completely delete your account. This will purge all of your information from Facebook's servers and ensure you never have to worry about their privacy settings again. Of course, the mere thought of deleting a Facebook account may raise your blood pressure, especially when you start thinking about all of the information that will be lost. Your photos, notes, contact details, etc...all gone forever.

This can be reason enough for many people to keep their account. They may want to delete it, but the thought of losing all that stuff prevents them from doing so. Luckily, there are lots of options for saving your personal data, just none that are officially supported by Facebook. Let's get started...

Export your photos
There are dozens of programs available for exporting your photos from Facebook. A simple Google search will show you how many choices are available. Some of them only export your photos, while others can export all photos you're tagged in, even if they were uploaded by someone else. For this post, we'll only be demonstrating how to export your own pictures. At present, exporting photos uploaded by others is a violation of Facebook's terms of service, so we'll skip that for this post. If you want to do it anyway, you can find all you need by searching Google.

One of the easier to use tools for exporting is called PhotoGrabber. It's very fast and logs in using the Facebook app framework, meaning you don't even need to give it your password. The only downside is that it downloads all photos to one folder and doesn't preserve your existing album structure. This shouldn't be too big of a deal, unless you have thousands of photos to export.

You can download PhotoGrabber here for Windows (or here for Mac users). There's no install, just unzip the file to your desktop, documents folder, whatever, and launch the exe file. It will ask you to pick a folder to save your pictures to (note that it can't create a folder, so you should have one created already). Once you've picked a folder, it will ask you to log in. This simply launches a browser and asks you to grant PhotoGrabber access. Next, just click the big Download button and it's off and running. Downloading all your photos could take a while, depending on how many you have.

Export your notes
I know there are lots of people who use Facebook Notes as blog posts. So if you were to leave Facebook, you'd obviously want those notes back, right? Well, it looks like you're out of luck. Quite simply, there is no way to export notes. I researched this extensively and that's the sad truth. Facebook does allow you to view or subscribe to an RSS feed of your notes, but it's not even an XML based feed, so there's no way to export it that way.

So, it looks like the only way to save your notes is to individually copy and paste the text one by one. This is a huge pain, especially if you have hundreds of notes, but it appears to be the only way. If you know of a way to export notes, please share it in the comments.

Export your videos
Luckily, exporting your videos is not only possible, but it's pretty easy, assuming you have Firefox. If you don't already use Firefox, you can download it here. Then simply install the Facebook Video extension and restart the browser. After it's installed, you can view your Facebook videos and there will be a new link on the right that says, "Download Video." You'll have to download your videos individually, but that's to be expected.

Export your phonebook
This is something that most people probably wouldn't think about, but it's definitely valuable. And depending on what other services you use, it can either be easy or complicated. Let's take a look.

If you use Yahoo or Hotmail for your email service, you can simply go into your address book and import your contacts from Facebook. Very easy. But if you use Gmail or another email service, it's a bit more complicated.

The easiest way is to use a Firefox extension. First, open Firefox and install Greasemonkey. Next, install the Facebook Phonebook Export userscript. Now, go to your Facebook friends page and right-click on the little Greasemonkey icon in the very bottom right of the Firefox window. Click on Grab Phone Numbers. This will generate a CSV file of your contacts when you can then import into Gmail or whatever email service you use.

Note, though that this Greasemonkey script only exports your friends one page at a time. So if you have a thousand friends, you have to go to each page of your friendlist and repeat the steps.

Things you can't export
Now for the bad news. There are several things on Facebook that are simply impossible to export. Messages inbox? Forget it. Your old status updates? Good luck. If you want this stuff, you'll literally have to go into each message or status update and cut-and-paste them individually into a Word or text document.

There is one nifty little tool called Disco Explorer that will let you search all of your old Facebook status updates. It creates a local cache of the data so you can continue to view it. But it doesn't let you save the data in another format (though copy-and-paste is much easier from the Disco page. (NOTE: I tried three different browsers and can only get Disco to work in Internet Explorer)

As with notes, if you know of a way to easily export this stuff, please share it in the comments and I'll update the post.

So why do we care about exporting? If you don't plan on deleting your Facebook account, why would you be bothered by the fact that you can't export your messages or notes? For me, it's a matter of principal. I am an extremely firm believer in the fact that my data belongs to me. No matter where I chose to store my pictures, email, videos, contacts list, etc., it still belongs to me and I should be able to do with it as I see fit.

Imagine if you bought a new car and found out that once you put your music (CDs, iPod, whatever) into the car, you can never get it out. "No big deal," your friends say, "you only listen to music in your car anyway, so what's the problem?" Obviously this scenario is ridiculous and yet that's just what we're doing when we give Facebook out data (be it pictures, notes, email, etc.)

What happens when a Facebook competitor comes along? It will happen...remember MySpace? Friendster? Xanga? All had their day and were overthrown. Facebook will be replaced by something sooner or later.

But beyond that practical reality, what of the simple fact that Facebook is refusing you let you control your own data? For a comparison, look at Google. All of Google's services give you very easy ways to export your data. At any time, you can simply pack up and go. Google even has a dedicated site,, with instructions for all of their various products.

Facebook's very nature is to lock you in and keep you there. They use the car argument example to convince you to trust them with all of your data without any indication of what happens next.

Your data belongs to you and whether you chose to trust Facebook with it is up to you. I most certainly do not. Look for a future post about what alternatives you can use instead and why they're better. The biggest reason I hear for continuing to use Facebook is that everyone else uses it. But if enough of us quit Facebook and move somewhere else, then it won't seem lonely without it. :-)