Deactivating vs. Deleting: Where our life stories go when we decide to close a Facebook account
By Michael Humphrey, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Communication, Colorado State University
The latest deluge of Facebook controversies has many people ready to kick the app to the digital curb, and there are plenty of guides 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 leaving completely, there is one thing to consider: 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 have 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.
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 is 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.
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.