You Are What You Type: Facebook Tracks What You Decide Not to Post


facebook postWe all do it: start typing into the status update bar on Facebook and then use our (better) judgment to delete those thoughts and not share them with the world.

Facebook calls it “self-censorship,” and according to a report by Slate’ s Jennifer Golbeck, the social network has been tracking and studying our unpublished thoughts. Put simply: Facebook is analyzing the posts that you have consciously decided to not share.

Tracking Self Censored Posts

Collecting this information from more than five million users during 17 days over the summer of 2012, Facebook researchers, Adam Kramer, a data scientist and Sauvik Das, a summer intern, tracked and analyzed self-censored content. (Read the full report here.)

Using the Javascript code already in your browser, Facebook was able to examine not only the status updates you intentionally choose not to share, but also the comments and posts you started to type out to your friends but then decided not to post. (This is the same technology Google uses in Gmail to save your e-mails as draft even though you have not hit save or send.)

Kramer and Das are quick to point out that the exact words and phrases were not tracked; instead the focus was on metadata. Facebook claims that this type of tracking is well within its current Terms of Service and Data Use Policy. According to Golbeck, Facebook defines these unpublished posts as an “interaction” which is covered under the policy. You can be the judge of that by reading more here.

What’s Gained By Facebook (But Lost By You)?

Even though Kramer and Das didn’t spy the exact content of your self-censored posts, they still captured a lot of data during their study and thus learned a lot about you. They know that during the study the average user holds back on 4.52 statuses and 3.2 comments. They also examined the demographic of your audience to determine who you were planning to post the update for and why the composition of this audience might have hindered your sharing.

For Facebook, anything you post adds a value to the network. Remember that the site makes its money by serving you advertisements and sponsored content in the NewFeed and right hand rail. Everything you post, all your interests, who you interact most with, what you click on (etc.) gets measured, recorded and analyzed so that Facebook can serve you more tailored ads (and make more money). When a user decides to not post something, Facebook loses that content and thus, loses value.

According to Facebook, this study was completed to learn more about these acts of self-censorship in order to mitigate them from happening in the future. If the network can understand why a user decides not to post, it can make the features of the site more conducive for sharing so that way self-censorship happens less and less.

Make It Stop

Facebook may have its reasons, but it doesn’t mean that they are justified. Additionally, who is to say that Facebook won’t begin to track the keystrokes of self-censored posts in the future? The technology to this is already there so if Facebook wants this data they can easily get it.

While a personal VPN could protect you while using Facebook’s “free” WiFi, at this juncture there are two ways for users to stop their self-censored posts from being tracked. First, stop using Facebook, and second, block JavaScript from your browser by using a plug in like NoScript.

Do you think Facebook has the right to track the things you didn’t post? Tell us in the comments.


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Jillian Ryan

Jillian Ryan is PRIVATE WiFi's Director, Brand Communications and Social Strategy. With a passion for writing, the web, and fast-paced information exchanged via social networks, Jillian is also concerned about the ramifications of putting your life details and personal data into cyberspace. Follow her on Twitter: @Writing_Jillian.