Archiving Your Facebook Data

Facebook Backup IconFacebook announced a new feature last month, allowing users to download a copy of everything they had ever uploaded to Facebook—photographs, videos, status updates, comments, and so on.

Facebook was applauded at the time for giving users more control over their data, but as Alisa Leonard of the DataPortability Project explained, Facebook’s move provided “data accessibility, not data portability.” The difference between accessibility and portability is important: while you can now access your Facebook data in a new way, that data isn’t portable. You can’t take it with you. You can only take a copy with you. The material still resides on Facebook’s servers, even after you deactivate your account.

The people most concerned about Facebook’s tenacious hold over their personal data have likely already stopped using the service. But many (millions of) others continue to keep in touch with friends and family on Facebook, despite Facebook’s restrictive TOS. Given ProfHacker’s relentless evangelism regarding backup, I wanted to check out Facebook’s new backup feature and share my findings.

Initiating the Backup Procedure

To begin the backup procedure, follow these steps:

  1. Log into Facebook. (I mention this obvious step simply because it’s the only obvious step. Everything else is buried in menus.)
  2. Use the pull-down menu under “Accounts” and select “Account Settings.”
  3. Toward the bottom of the new page, you’ll see “Download Your Information.” Select the “learn more” link.
  4. Click the green download button.
  5. And wait.
  6. Seriously, wait.
  7. For at least an hour, wait.
  8. It turns out that download button is not a download button. Just as you can’t instantly delete a Facebook account (due to what we might generously call a “cooling off” period between your deactivation and Facebook’s actual removal of your account, just in case you change your mind), you can’t instantly download your data. After you’ve pressed the download button, you’ll see an alert, telling you that “it may take a little while for us to gather all of your photos, wall posts, messages, and other information.”

And so you’ll be waiting, as Facebook gathers everything into a zip file. When the file is ready, Facebook will send you an email with the real download link.

Downloading the Backup File

  1. The amount of time it takes for you to receive the email depends on a number of factors, ranging from how much data (photos, videos, etc.) you have on Facebook to the speed of your email provider. My own backup took about an hour to be ready—a surprising amount of time, considering how little data I had on Facebook.
  2. The email contains a link that sends you back to Facebook, where you have to enter in your password, even if you’re already logged in. Note also the warning that the file contains sensitive information and that you should be careful how you use it.

Facebook Download Your Information Page

Using the Backup File

All of your data is compressed into a single zip file, easily opened on Macs, PCs, or Linux machines. My zip file was only 3mb, but yours could easily balloon in size if you have many photographs or much video. Once unzipped, the new directory contains a one-line readme.txt file, simply stating when the file was downloaded. There are several subdirectories (for photos and videos). And then there’s an index.html file tying it all together. Open it up in your browser, and you’ll find a stripped-down version of your Facebook wall:

Backup Facebook Wall

Your profile won’t have redacted text like the one above. That was just me, taking  precautions with my “sensitive information” for the purposes of this tutorial. But it will have just about everything that ever appeared on your profile (and which you hadn’t already previously removed). Under my Wall, I have every status update and comment, going all the way back to September 2006, when I first joined Facebook. Likewise, all my photos are there, a complete list of my “Friends,” and even a copy of any private message I sent or received.

All told, backing up your Facebook account is easy, but not fast. It’s complete backup too—up to a point. I noticed, for example, that photographs are stripped of their metadata, though that’s due to Facebook itself, rather than the backup process.

Have you backed up your Facebook account? Have you run into any problems? Does the guarantee of downloading all your data make it more likely you leave Facebook someday? Let us know in the comments!

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