Forget the Data Scandal; Here’s the Creepy Bit of Facebook
In case it is unclear, I didn’t try to sound funny in this story. It is about what’s very wrong with social media and the Internet right now, and it is based on real websites and inspired by real-life events. But all characters are fictional. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental.
Rachel was lying on her bed when she watched clips from Zuckerberg’s hearing on Facebook for the first time. People around the world were rushing to delete their accounts because they finally realised that Facebook tracked everything they did on Facebook and not on Facebook. That Facebook read their messages on Whatsapp and Messenger.
Rachel snorted. Do people know that when they upload photos or set up a page for their “personal brand”, Facebook needs to pay for data storage and maintenance? Your information is an entry fee. An entry fee to a wild, wild world.
It began in a high school computer class.
Streaks of sunlight slipped through the gaps of black curtains into the freezing computer room. Rachel’s middle-aged computer literacy teacher was babbling on about the right ways to set up a safe password. But in the past few months, the boys in her row had taught her so much more: mash the F8 key and the computer enters Safe Mode, a way to sneak past the room’s screen monitoring system; another way to do that is to pull out the LAN cable when Windows starts. The boys needed to teach her the latter–the school had shut down the Safe Mode from all computers after the teachers realised they couldn’t monitor anything.
So there was Rachel, playing endless rounds of online Tetris Battles and watching stand-up comedy videos on YouTube at the back row, while the boys sitting next to her watched Top 10 NBA shots videos over and over.
One day, the boy sitting next to Rachel whispered between the computers.
“Guys, I found Miss Cheung’s blog.”
What, Miss Cheung has a blog? Even students in the first row turned around and looked.
All kids do this, don’t they? From the second they learn about their teacher’s name, knowing everything about them becomes their sole purpose of living. Where do they live? How old are they? Are they married or single? Do they have kids? Knowing their teachers as some mythical creatures that they must respect is simply not enough. They need to know them as human beings.
When their computer literacy teacher went on about how probably all computer viruses were invented by anti-virus software companies, everyone in the class was dissecting Miss Cheung’s blog, post by post, word by word, letter by letter.
In less than 15 minutes Rachel already had a profile of Miss Cheung in her head: 25, married for 3 years, lives in Tung Chung, keeps a dog, graduated from HKU. She posted her floor plan on a post from when she moved into her new flat, and since the floor plan was titled Flat D on 26/F-30/F, Rachel could technically visit the housing estate, know exactly which block to go, knock on Flat D, and have a one-in-five chance of having Miss Cheung answering the door.
That’s like watching a detective show, Rachel thought to herself, except with you doing all the actual detective work. On real people you know. About real life. All done with Google.
From that day on, Rachel stopped watching stand-up comedy videos on YouTube and started Googling people’s names for fun instead. First she ran through the list of teacher’s name on the school website. Then her class’s name list. Of course other teachers didn’t have blogs. But students did. Rachel would read her classmate’s daily Qooza and Xanga blogs about the food they ate at their home parties, their thoughts about homework and their teachers, and the “class number challenge” which required participants to comment on every single one of their classmates. All without getting for a Qooza or Xanga account.
When Facebook got more popular, Rachel signed up. She never posted much, only occasionally sharing links. But no one knew how much time she had spent on the site. Not even Rachel herself. She had scrolled to the bottom of so many accounts she had lost count. She read every Note, the ones that people typed and forgot, with their privacy still set to public. She watched all of the videos of her new class teacher Miss Lai from back in 2009 and tried to piece together why the girl in the videos didn’t call the man next to Miss Lai her father. She didn’t talk much during her end-of-school-year study tour briefing, because she already knew each of her tour group members’ favourite Kpop and Hong Kong singer groups before they have even met. Talking about it would have been weird, Rachel thought to herself as her group mates chatted.
Rachel didn’t use as much Facebook when she started uni, but the habit of typing people’s name in Facebook’s search bar stuck. When Rachel met new people at school events, she always added them as Facebook friends on mobile. Rachel would have scrolled down their profile to a few years back before the events ended.
One night, when Rachel was procrastinating on her essay as usual, she typed the name of one of her most boring straight-A schoolmate in the search bar. She groaned at the sight of the cover photo–a bible quote over a picture of flowers with blue skies. How is the person the same age as me? thought Rachel. She tried to click on “New Tab”, but ended up hitting the “Back” button on her browser instead.
And that brought her back to the search results of her friend’s name on Facebook. Ugh, anything but her profile, thought Rachel as she absent-mindedly scrolled down the page. Somehow Facebook algorithm decided to show the photos she uploaded in 2009. Rachel skimmed through all of the buttons on the page and clicked “Photo” on the bar at the top, just below the search bar. Twenty or so photos with her friend’s face loaded in a millisecond.
Just as Rachel decided to go back to working on her essay, she glanced at the search bar. It no longer says only her friend’s name. Instead, it says:
“photos of Christine Wong”
Rachel put the cursor over the search bar and clicked. Suggested autocomplete items popped up;
“photos of Christine Wong before 2010”
“photos liked by Christine Wong before 2010”
“photos commented on by Christine Wong before 2010”
Wait, what? Rachel clicked on the third item. And there it was, a list of photos where Christine Wong had commented on, before 2010. There were photos of Christine when she was still a wee kid swimming at the beach, uploaded by her mom.
Rachel sat up straight. Previously I can only read content posted by a certain person on their profile. This is uncharted territory. She started typing.
Three searches later and she was looking at photos of her best friend in 2009 wearing black lipstick and making the sign of the horns with long-haired boys.
This couldn’t only work for photos. How about posts? Rachel typed “posts commented on by *her best friend’s name*” on the search bar. Holy shit. It worked.
She handed in the essay a day late and got a B.
One of the things Rachel learnt from Googling teachers was that their lives are quite mundane. She thought she would do something more unorthodox with her life. The last thing Rachel wanted to do was to be a school teacher. Who would have thought two years later, she would be working at a school.
Her search adventure continued. In her leisure time, she first found one of her colleague’s LinkedIn account. Not very exciting. Then she became Facebook friends with one of the colleagues. It was filled with gaming information, but still it was nothing much. But perhaps Facebook’s algorithm was clever enough to know that the colleagues knew each other in real life, even though they were not friends on the platform; after the connection, when Rachel typed her colleague’s name on the Facebook search bar, the right faces started to pop up. A senior teacher’s friend list was hidden, but a link to her old blog was right below her name in her profile. One click and Rachel was reading years worth of content about her daughters, from their kindergartens to their toilet issues. Rumour has it that another teacher was forced to quit the previous school because he wrote a Facebook post commenting on the clothing of a student’s parent, but to Rachel’s surprise, the post was still public at the bottom of his account.
Facebook is undoubtedly a creepy company that saves everything, even stuff that you started typing and delete, Rachel read from back in 2013. But what is the worst Facebook can do with the information? Give you better ads? Sway votes? People who buy things or vote based on their Facebook feed must be utter morons. The worst-case scenario Rachel can imagine is Facebook setting up a totalitarian government with the information. But the company would probably never do it. It would be bad for business.
But what if the people who live and work with you got hold of the information? Rachel didn’t even need to be Facebook friends with her colleagues to read the entirety of their public like history. She had one common friend with Sandy, a fresh-graduate teacher colleague; and through that common friend she could already get enough information to make a name list of all of Sandy’s university classmates, another list of meme pages she had visited online, and pinpoint the exact month when she started wearing her signature blood-red lipstick, even though the only three things Sandy set public were her current profile picture (a black silhouette against the sky) and her two cover photos.
Once, for amusement, Rachel asked whether Sandy liked to visit Muji, a Japanese retail chain. She watched her flinch as she paused, then replied, “Sometimes. Why’d you ask that?” Because Sandy worked as a part-time salesperson in Muji before this job. And Sandy didn’t want people to know. But Rachel knew.
And these were only things that Rachel could do. What if people with a more vivid imagination learnt about this?
Why don’t Facebook keep these “public” record to themselves? What if people found out they can do these elaborate profilings to well, nearly anyone on Facebook? Rachel thought about the time she had spent on the site because of this function. Is Facebook still keeping it because of the page views? How many people are doing the same thing as I do? Rachel wondered. How much revenue does Facebook generate, solely from online stalkers?
Facebook probably asked the same questions.
A week later Rachel was bored at her job and decided to embark on yet another search bar journey again. She typed, “photos liked by Renee Yip”.
Only one photo showed up.
Rachel was expecting an endless stream of photos. She tried again. “photos liked by Ida Lui”.
Only one photo showed up.
As Rachel made a mental note that her search bar game might be coming to an end, her fingers had already brought her to Google. In less than 10 minutes, Rachel had found her solution, and she couldn’t believe it was actually legal.
Joe from the general office was oversharing with Rachel lately. Here’s what happened:
Joe met a boy through an online dating app. The boy was very sweet and had been sharing his everyday details to Joe through text messages, from the time he ate breakfast to the people he met. Then it got awkward — the boy started messaging Joe about his new, rich boyfriend. Bitter and confused, Joe clicked through all accounts on the boy’s Facebook friend list, and he saw a boy who was a friend of Rachel on Facebook.
“Oh yea, Lester was my uni classmate,” said Rachel. “His Facebook posts are very entertaining because, well, he is very weird.”
And just like that Joe and Rachel scrolled through all the posts on Lester’s profile in the afternoon.
Joe agreed that Lester was weird.
A few weeks later Joe was devastated. The boy had arranged to meet Joe in real life next week, but there he was, sharing his every move with his new, rich boyfriend.
“Do you think he talks about me in front of him?” Joe was sobbing. “If he talks about him in front of me, he could possibly be talking about him in front of ten people like me! What even am I, Rachel?”
Rachel looked at Joe. He is a kind, trustworthy person. In a very weird situation.
She shared the link stalkscan.com with him.
“Go to his Facebook profile, and paste the link here.”
Joe clicked around.
“Wait, you can track and read every single post an account has commented on?”
“Wait till you see this.”
Rachel selected “Male” on the first menu on the site and clicked “Pictures” in the “Comments” menu.
“So I can sort his friend’s list to see only his male friends, and I can see all of his posts tagged with him and his male friends, and I can set this up so that I can see all pictures he has liked with a male in it?!” Joe looked up, “Rachel, that’s actually… terrifying. That’s so fucked up.”
“Welcome to Facebook,” said Rachel before leaving Joe alone with the site.
Joe never mentioned the site and the boy to Rachel again.
At gatherings, when people sat together and talked their heart out, Rachel usually stayed silent. She would take a good hard look at their faces and think about how they presented themselves online, and how different it is with reality.
There’s David, who talked about going to clubs and getting drunk all the time, but only liked the posts of dog shelters and vegetarian restaurants. There’s Katie, who posted about birthday parties and “feeling loved”, but all she did was complaining about pretty much everything in her life when given the chance. And while they were talking, another friend sitting on the end of the table was tapping away on her phone, consuming, and at the same time creating more and more information about herself on Facebook.
Sometimes Rachel would wonder whether she had crossed a line reading people’s endless stream of information on the site. In real life, you can get an empty room if you need privacy. You can refuse to answer questions if you don’t want to. Fumbling papers on other people’s table would be considered rude and intrusive.
But what about on Facebook? Rachel wondered. Facebook is like a stage that invites everyone to perform, about their real life, with their uploads, posts, likes, and comments. Most performing participants thought only their friends would be interested enough to look.
But there were people like Rachel, who realised that Facebook is actually more like a huge carnival, with each user performing in separate tents. And if she pulled up a tent and walked into any of the hundreds and thousands of the tents, no one could ever stop her. All she needed was a carnival entry ticket.
And Rachel will continue to watch her friends’ lives. Because she can. Those people chose to share their information, after all.
Note for context: Facebook graph search was discontinued from 7 June 2019.