What happens to your life stories if you delete your Facebook account?

Editor’s note: Michael Humphrey, assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University, wrote this piece for The Conversation in October 2021. Colorado State is a contributing institution to The Conversation, an independent collaboration between editors and academics that provides informed news analysis and commentary to the general public. See the entire list of contributing faculty and their articles here.

How much of your life is archived on Facebook?
Arthur Poulin/Unsplash

If the latest deluge of Facebook controversies has you ready to kick the app to the digital curb, you are not alone. There are plenty of good guides out there on how to do it right. Even Facebook makes it pretty easy to understand the nuances of saying “see ya later” (deactivating) or “never speak to me again” (deleting).

But before you go, you might want to consider this: What happens to your life stories?

For many people, a decade or more of updates, comments, photos, messages, tags, pokes, groups and reactions reside inside that particular digital sphere. And Facebook wants you to remember that. As one writer put it: “Facebook is obsessed with memories. It likes to make you nostalgic, and remind you of just how long you’ve used social media.”

As a researcher who studies life stories on social media, I know that’s an accurate assessment. This strategy drove Facebook to build a powerful and unique life narrative tool. Millions of people have invested billions of collective hours building what scholars call a networked life narrative, in which people “co-construct” their social identities through their interactions with one another.

Perhaps you’ve never thought about how archiving the small moments of your life would eventually amass into a large narrative of yourself. Or how interactions from your family, friends, colleagues and strangers would create meaningful dimensions of that story.

Deactivating versus deleting

What happens if you decide to be done with all of that? If you deactivate Facebook, it is like putting that story into suspended animation. Much of what you did and said will either be removed or grayed out. If you reactivate it someday, most of it will be restored and on you go.

A hand holds a white smart phone with a blue screen with the name facebook in the center and cross out marks across the text
Feeling the urge to quit Facebook?
Book Catalog/Flickr, CC BY

Delete the account, on the other hand, and “Your profile, photos, posts, videos, and everything else you’ve added will be permanently deleted. You won’t be able to retrieve anything you’ve added,” according to Facebook.

If all those memories you have stored mean anything to you, your last chance to keep it before deleting is to download your information. I suggest you do this once in a while anyway, because it reveals a lot about how you are tracked, how you consume media on the app and how you have acted on the site over the years.

It’s also a pretty nifty set of files that you can view offline either through the folder system or using a web browser offline by opening the index.html file. You can also look at the data online through Facebook.

Losing the connections

But to a surprisingly large degree, your downloaded narrative gets “de-networked.” What do I mean by that?

  • Your posts are listed by date and time, but have none of the reactions and comments that followed. This is also true of photos and videos you have posted.
  • The same happens to the comments you made on other people’s posts. There is no reference to what you were commenting on because technically that is not your data.
  • The polls you have voted on do not have the context of the poll itself, only your answers.
  • The invitations you received are listed only by name.
  • There is a section of all the people you have interacted with on the app, but it’s just a list of names, dates and times.
  • There are dates attached to most everything, but none of the context – think personal and social news – in which those posts were made.

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There are exceptions. For one, your messages are left in context, so you see the conversations you had. Another exception is that events are ordered by how you responded about attending. And I have one caveat: I am gathering this information from my own data, so there might be other exceptions I cannot see.

Take a look around before walking out the door

Still, what you ultimately download starts to feel like the scaffolding of a life, with the depth of those memories only activated by your own mind. That might be enough for you.

If the richness of your networked narrative means something, on the other hand, slow down. Take some time to dive into your account one last time – saving the responses you cherish, capturing the context where you can – before you say goodbye to Facebook for good.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.