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.
As Barclay wrote of his experience using the tool in a recent article for Slate: “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 favourite 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 sent Barclay a cease-and-desist letter earlier this year, saying he’d violated the site’s terms of service by creating software that automated user interactions. Barclay says the company then “permanently disabled my Facebook and Instagram accounts” and “demanded that I agree to never again create tools that interact with Facebook or its other services.” Barclay notes that in addition to helping users, his “Unfollow Everything” tool was being used by researchers at the Swiss University of Neuchâtel to study the effects of the News Feed on people’s happiness. He says he couldn’t risk tangling in court with a trillion-dollar company like Facebook and so simply removed the tool.
Barclay’s story has emerged at an inauspicious time for Facebook (though when is it a good time for the perpetually-embattled firm?). Whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before Congress this week to testify about Facebook’s insatiable demand for growth, which Haugen says comes too often at the costs of users’ well-being. “It’s paying for its profits with our safety,” she said in an episode of 60 Minutes. Documents leaked by Haugen include internal research conducted by Facebook that shows how using Instagram exacerbates body issues and mental health problems for some teenagers. Facebook’s primary response to Haugen’s testimony has been to smear her.
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.