If someone built a tool that made Facebook less addictive -- a tool that allowed users to benefit from Facebook's positive features while limiting their exposure to its negative ones -- how would Facebook respond?
I know the answer, because I built the tool, and Facebook squashed it. This summer, Facebook sent me a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action. It permanently disabled my Facebook and Instagram accounts. And it demanded that I agree to never again create tools that interact with Facebook or its other services. [...]
I had the idea for Unfollow Everything a few years ago, when I realized you don't actually need to have a News Feed. If you unfollow everything -- all of your friends, groups, and pages -- your News Feed ends up empty.
This isn't the same as unfriending. If you unfollow your friends and groups, you're still connected to them, and you can look up their profiles if you want. But by unfollowing everything, you eliminate your News Feed. This leaves you free to use Facebook without the feed, or to more actively curate it by refollowing only those friends and groups whose posts you really want to see.
I still remember the feeling of unfollowing everything for the first time. It was near-miraculous. I had lost nothing, since I could still see my favorite friends and groups by going to them directly. But I had gained a staggering amount of control. I was no longer tempted to scroll down an infinite feed of content. The time I spent on Facebook decreased dramatically. Overnight, my Facebook addiction became manageable. [...]
Then, a few months ago, Facebook sent me a cease-and-desist letter. The company demanded that I take down the tool. It also told me that it had permanently disabled my Facebook account -- an account that I'd had for more than 15 years, and that was my primary way of staying in touch with family and friends around the world. Pointing to a provision in its terms of service that purports to bind even former users of Facebook, Facebook also demanded that I never again create a tool that interacts with Facebook or its many other services in any way.
These demands seemed outrageous to me. They also seemed outrageous to lawyers I consulted from the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, and in the U.K. But my options were limited. I'm a U.K. resident, so a lawsuit against Facebook would probably have played out in a U.K. court, where I would have been personally on the hook for Facebook's litigation costs if I lost. Facebook is a trillion-dollar company. I couldn't afford that risk, so Unfollow Everything no longer exists. This is bad for its users, and also for the University of Neuchâtel, which will no longer be able to use it to study the News Feed.
Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.