A developer who made a tool that let people automatically unfollow friends and groups on Facebook says he’s been banned permanently from the social networking site.
Louis Barclay was the creator of “Unfollow Everything,” a browser extension that allowed Facebook users to essentially delete their News Feed by unfollowing all their connections at once. Facebook allows users to individually unfollow friends, groups, and pages, which removes their content from the News Feed, the algorithmically-controlled heart of Facebook. Barclay’s tool automated this process, instantly wiping users’ News Feed.
In a recent Slate article, Barclay described his experience with the tool:
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.
In response, Facebook issued a cease-and-desist letter to Barclay earlier this year, claiming that he had broken the site’s terms of service by developing software that automated user interactions. According to Barclay, the business subsequently “permanently deactivated my Facebook and Instagram accounts” and “demanded that I commit never to design tools that connect with Facebook or its other services again.” In addition to assisting users, Barclay notes that his “Unfollow Everything” application was being utilized by researchers at the Swiss University of Neuchâtel to explore the effects of the News Feed on people’s happiness. He claims he couldn’t risk a legal battle with a trillion-dollar firm like Facebook, so he just withdrew the ads.
Barclay’s story has come to light at an inopportune time for Facebook (but when is it ever a good time for the perpetually struggling company?). Whistleblower Frances Haugen spoke before Congress this week about Facebook’s unquenchable need for expansion, which she claims often comes at the expense of users’ well-being. “It pays for its profits with our safety,” she explained on 60 Minutes. Internal Facebook study demonstrates how using Instagram exacerbates body difficulties and mental health problems for some youngsters, according to documents stolen by Haugen. The primary reaction of Facebook to Haugen’s testimony has been to malign him.
Compared to Haugen’s exposure to Facebook, Barclay’s story is relatively run-of-the-mill. After all, Facebook’s terms of service are very clear on what sort of tools users can build, and Unfollow Everything obviously violated this agreement.
But the episode still neatly illustrates Facebook’s approach to its user-base, and how it often wants to give people the feeling of control without letting them fully escape its grasp. The company is happy to let users unfollow people individually, but automating the process would make it too easy to opt-out of the News Feed, which is essential for keeping users coming back and lining Facebook’s pockets with advertising revenue. So, of course, tools like Barclay’s — even if they have limited uptake — are forbidden.