We downloaded our Facebook data and all we got was this lousy list of random stuff

Inspired by the controversy over Facebook’s exploitation of users’ personal information, four Spinoff staffers downloaded their data. Here’s what they found.

After revelations that 50 million Facebook users had their personal information improperly obtained by data mining company Cambridge Analytica, Wellington software developer Dylan McKay downloaded his Facebook data, and found some personal information he believes the app shouldn’t have been able to access.

This list included data from phone calls McKay had made and received: data such as call durations, whether they were incoming or outgoing, and who was involved in the call. McKay said he’s sure the calls weren’t made from within the Facebook Messenger app.

With privacy becoming harder and harder to hold on to, social media companies are now in the spotlight and being forced to answer questions about data collection. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg apologised earlier in full-page newspaper ads for his company’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica.

Here at The Spinoff, we’re as paranoid as the next urban-left listicle platform about internet powers hacking into our souls through customised advertising and the demons who made ‘cookies’ a bad thing. So we downloaded our own Facebook data to find out what they had on us. Half an hour and 3.5 gigabytes later we uncovered our personalised lists of advertising keywords and some evidence of our long-forgotten social media pasts.

Sam Brooks: A lot of my ads are from pages I’ve forgotten to unlike

Part of an extensive list of what Sam would definitely like to see more of, thanks Zuck

Half of the data makes me remember how wildly and crazily I used Facebook when I first went to uni. When what people liked came up as activity on your main newsfeed, so when your friend liked ‘That feeling when you need Maccas after a hangover’ (a hypothetical page but one that definitely exists), you saw it and had a little chuckle, for some reason. The problem is that unless you were willing to spend an afternoon methodically unliking things, you get random ads and videos from these pages showing up for years to come. So probably a lot of my ads are from that. Or they’re taking from the many conversations I’ve had about Ani DiFranco, ‘Physical attractiveness’, Love (John Lennon song) and Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (all of these actually exist, some of them I have talked about, others I definitely have not.)

The other half makes me scared. What phrases did I use in the past to make people think I would want to see ads for Sacha Baron Cohen, the Conservative Party of UK, The National Party of Australia and most horrifically, ‘Assocation Football’? Who paid for me to see these ads, and what phrases did I use in my messages to convey them? When the hell was I talking about soccer?!

One of the entries that came up was my ex-boyfriend’s last name, which he shares with an obscure county somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere. I almost feel bad for whatever hapless company put money on the account to display an ad to me, at some point, for their county when actually I was probably just drunkenly messaging friends and using both of that ex’s names to distinguish him from everybody else. Hope you got your $0.00007 worth, buddy.

Sam Brooks is The Spinoff’s Gaming and Television editor.

Alice Webb-Liddall: I’m just embarrassed

For some reason my list of keywords for advertisers was about five times longer than anyone else’s, and 2000s rock band Evanescence showed up in various ways three separate times.

Evanescence’s number 1 fan over here

For me the algorithm is probably slightly tarnished by the fact I haven’t enthusiastically used Facebook for three or four years. For ‘Motorsport’ to come second only to ‘Colour’ on the list of things I’m into is probably telling of this.

If Facebook thinks this list is a rounded representation of who I am then that’s probably a good thing. Like most people, I don’t have access to any top secret information or war-starting secrets but I would rather not have data about me that I didn’t choose to share being used to subliminally alter my thoughts. I’ve seen The Push. I know how these things work. GET OUT OF MY HEAD DERREN BROWN OR MARK ZUCKERBERG OR WHOEVER YOU ARE.

Digging only very slightly deeper I also found a series of videos that I’d wilfully forgotten about. Look, I grew up in the age of social media (the data told me I got Facebook in 2009, which means I was 11, which means I definitely wasn’t allowed to, sorry Mum). I remember ‘like for a like’ was at its peak in around 2012, and by 2013 ‘like for a video’ was the new black. Also I love attention and seized the opportunity to do a four way a cappella version of Kanye’s ‘Golddigger’ by myself for the sweet sweet nectar of likes.

The only proof you will ever get are these stills right here. Soak ’em up people

In all honesty, if Facebook started giving me more ads about Emotion, College Lacrosse, and Billy Burke (actor) I might be more interested in their dying platform.

Alice Webb-Liddall is The Spinoff’s production intern.

Toby Morris: ‘Shambolic and only semi-accurate’

Toby likes aesthetics… fancy that for an artist

Pulling that info down from FB felt weirdly empowering, then confusing, then slightly anticlimactic.
It’s pretty daunting to think how much they know about you, but then, seeing the list of things they think I’m into, I felt slightly reassured by how shambolic and only semi-accurate it was.

My list felt very accurate and close to the bone in some places (I do love Ghostbusters, it’s true), then way off the mark in others (there were lots of specific songs and videos by Lady Gaga, who I don’t think I’ve ever really listened to). Some things were charmingly vague (Hello, my interests include earth, music, aesthetics & ‘Tree’) and some strangely specific (Arthur Wellesley First Duke of Wellington – huh?). But mostly, just pretty predictable.

The thing I did find kind of interesting, especially given recent news, was the lack of anything political on there. I’m interested in politics and social causes so I follow and post about that kind of thing a fair bit – but that kind of thing was barely reflected in what Facebook thinks I’m all about.

Either Arthur Wellesley is code for some kind of specific political pigeon hole, or Facebook is dumber than we think, or this isn’t really everything they know about us.

Toby Morris is a Spinoff contributing writer and artist.

Leonie Hayden: I’m far, far whiter than I thought

My data file reveals that I joined Facebook on April 11 2007 and my first words were “feeling the noize” – a very cool Slade reference that I’ve no doubt impressed and electrified my peers.

I’ve also discovered, care of my ad topics, that I am actually The Whitest Person You Know™.

Leonie goes crazy for Gilmore Girls and Grey Lynne, nailed it FB

It was nice to be reunited with this profile image I made myself circa 2010, a reminder of a more innocent time in memes:

The FB data team realising they got nothin’ on me

And then there was this reminder that before Instragram we all used to put blown out, poo brown filters on our photos using Hipstamatic:

My greatest fear is to be brainwashed by data manipulating websites

Probably the most shocking revelation for me is that photos I thought I had deleted from Facebook were not deleted and are now on my desktop once more reminding me why I deleted them. They’re not incriminating enough for me to be worried, but it is unnerving and a reminder that Big Zuck probably has enough dirt on us all to become Grand Emperor of the Universe if he wanted to.

Leonie Hayden is the editor of Ātea on The Spinoff.


This section is made possible by Simplicity, New Zealand’s fastest growing KiwiSaver scheme. As a nonprofit, Simplicity only charges members what it costs to invest their money. It already has more than 12,500 plus members who, together, are saving more than $3.8 million annually in fees. This year, New Zealanders will pay more than $525 million in KiwiSaver fees. Why pay more than you need to? It takes two minutes to switch. Grab your IRD # and driver’s licence. It really is that simple.


The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.

Related:


The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.