Friday, November 5, 2010

Facebook now lets users export data!

It looks like Facebook may finally be coming around. After quite a few problems with privacy lately, Facebook recently unveiled several new privacy features and options which seem to have users in mind. As usual, several of the changes are opt-out, meaning all users are automatically signed up for them, and must manually turn it off. More about this in a future post.

One of the biggest and most surprising features, though, is data exporting. In a huge shift from the way Facebook has previously worked, the site now allows users to perform a mass export, and save all of their data themselves. The export feature creates one zip file that contains all of your status updates, notes, pictures, links, comments, etc. and lets users save it to their local computers.

Exporting data is extremely easy, and takes just a few clicks. To do it, first log into Facebook, then click Account in the top right, then Account Settings. From there, click Learn More next to Download Your Information. You will then be presented with a very simple, one button download page. The download isn't immediate, as it takes a while (sometimes several hours) to prepare your information for download. Once you click the button, Facebook will send you an email when your file is ready.

Be careful, though, since the zip file does contain all of your information, including private info that you may not want others to see. As such, it is definitely NOT recommended that you do this on a public computer. Wait to actually download your zip file until you are on your own, personal computer. If you must use a public computer, you should copy the file to your personal USB drive, then delete it and empty the recycle bin. Common sense stuff, here.

Once you get your download link, you can save the zip file to your computer and take a look at it. You'll find a group of folders that contain your pictures, videos, etc., we well as HTML files that allow easy viewing of these files. Sadly, it only downloads the small, Facebook-quality images. So even if you originally uploaded a 10 megapixel image, this only downloads the tiny display version.

There are bound to be third party services soon that can take advantage of these zip files. One potential example would be a competing social network. Imagine if a new service comes along and you can simply upload your Facebook zip file to instantly add all of your info to the new network. Or imagine services that let you upload the zip file to help add contacts to your email client, or add photos to Flickr or Picasa. There are lots of possibilities of how to take advantage of the zip file, we just have to wait and see what developers come up with.

So why should you download your information? If you have no plans of quitting Facebook or deleting your account, then you don't necessarily need to download your info. Some people simply like to keep a local backup of their data for safe keeping. It never hurts to backup your data, of course, especially if you keep a lot of photos on Facebook. But if you are at all interested in deleting your account, you now have an excellent and super-easy option for getting your data out.

There is one glaring hole to this, however: none of your friend data is exported. Even with this new download option, there is still no easy way to export your contact information from Facebook. Your address book is forever stuck in their ecosystem, unless, of course, you hunt down a 3rd party solution.

Even so, it's great to see Facebook take this step. Data portability is one of the most important features whenever I look at a new service. Most of Google's services (including Gmail, Docs, Calendar, etc.) allow users to quickly and easily export their data for use somewhere else. Facebook was one of the most glaring hold-outs for not allowing this type of exporting, and it's encouraging to see them change their tune. 

Maybe now I'll start using Facebook again...or maybe not.