Facebook’s Digital Unclaimed Freight Train

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on LinkedIn

What will happen, 30 years from now, to the 300 million photos we uploaded yesterday to Facebook?

Here’s your answer: Facebook will have them. We (probably) won’t. Facebook will have them labeled, categorized, ranked, and documented as to where and when they were taken, what they’re of, and who’s in them. We (almost certainly) won’t.

Best of all — from Facebook’s perspective: Facebook will be making billions of dollars monetizing those photos. We (definitely) won’t.

By “we” I mean the Facebook community — you and me. And yes, we uploaded 300 million photos to Facebook yesterday, just as we’ll do today, and every other day.

That’s the number. Per day. Not 300 million per year. Not per month. Per day. That’s 2.1 billion photos per week. It’s well over 100 billion per year.

Which means that over the next 30 years, we’ll deposit at least 3.3 trillion photos into the Facebook photo-bank. That’s 3.3 times a 10 with twelve zeroes after it. Assuming the rate doesn’t grow. It probably will grow, exponentially, unless Facebook implodes the way MySpace did. (Don’t bet on that.)

We give away treasures every day to corporate behemoths like Facebook!

Why is this important? Because most of us have no idea of the value of stuff we give away, every day, to corporate behemoths like Facebook. The artistic value. The historical value. The sentimental value. And — the only thing that matters to Facebook — the monetary value.

Look, I don’t hate Facebook. I use Facebook. Like most Facebookers, I appreciate the good things it does for me. Corporations exist, in any case, to profit their shareholders, and I can’t blame them for that. Nor do I fault any of us who feel so grateful to Facebook that we’d donate our valuable stuff. It’s a free country. Thank God we can give generously to anyone or anything we choose.

What concerns me is my feeling that lots of us are giving away treasures we wouldn’t give away, if we gave the matter more thought. So let’s look clearly at a few startling realities.

And before the shouted objections drown me out — please bear with me. I’ve heard them all. I’ll deal with the objections in a bit. First, give me a chance to explain what’s happening.

Digital Unclaimed Freight

Every year, countless tons of freight are shipped by truck, by train, by air. Almost all of it reaches its destination. But each year, a tiny percentage of physical freight goes unclaimed. How much?

Not much. But enough to generate a huge unclaimed-freight industry. Look around at all the unclaimed-freight stores in your town and on the Internet. It’s more than enough to provide jobs to ordinary workers, and fortunes to owners and shareholders.

Something has to be done with abandoned goods, physical or digital.

That’s fine. Something has to be done with lost-and-abandoned physical goods.

Facebook’s freight train, however, is digital. We upload 500 terabytes of data per day, including photos. That’s a number too gigantic for the human mind to process. Think of that data as freight.

Freight headed straight to Facebook. That’s its final destination. Supposedly we’re “sharing” those pictures and stories with online friends. Friends who may see them for a few minutes — or more likely, a few seconds — before they flicker past, disappearing into that never-ending stream called a “timeline”. We “like” this or that photo; we comment on some; they then vanish. To be forgotten. Till the next batch.

These photos remain forever in your Facebook account, unless you remove them. You’ll probably never see them again, and you may well forget about them. According to Facebooks’ ever-changing “terms of service”, these items are your “intellectual property”. You own them. Facebook doesn’t.

Facebook is fairly new, and I suppose most people who’ve created accounts still have them (even those who’ve lost interest and now visit less often). If you ever choose, you can “deactivate” your account (in which case it’s still there) or even “delete” your account, along with all the data in it.

Or can you? According to its terms of service, we grant Facebook “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License).” So far so good; but check out the next sentence: “This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.” (emphasis mine)

Can you ever truly delete anything you’ve shared on Facebook? That depends…

Someone tell me, quick: What the point of posting a photo, or anything else, to Facebook except to share it? There isn’t any! Facebook’s own terms sound like those of the Hotel California: “You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!” Unless and until your photo has been individually deleted by every single person with whom it “has been shared”, Facebook retains its license to “use” that photo any way it wishes.

That’s what Facebook’s terms say.

UPDATE: Facebook, for the moment, apparently is not exercising its stated right to keep and use photos in the way its terms allow. A few years ago there were widespread reports of photos remaining on Facebook even after being “deleted” by their owners. In August 2012, however, Ars Technica published an article titled “Three years later, deleting your photos on Facebook now actually works”. Its reported experiments show that removed photos now disappear from all Facebook accounts, including any that have reshared them.

Thanks to Debashish Samaddar for calling my attention to this development. See the Google Plus comment section below for our discussion of what this means. Debashish indicates that the terms-of-service language I am citing “is from the past” and no longer applies. My view is that when we agree to these terms, we are giving Facebook the right to do as its terms state, even if it currently refrains from doing so.

Before closing your account, you can download everything you’ve previously uploaded. For that matter, if you’ve uploaded stuff to Facebook, you may, in theory, also have copies you’ve kept on a hard drive someplace. After all, it’s your stuff, even if Facebook keeps copies. Right?

But most of us, when and if we do leave Facebook, just leave our stuff behind and never look back.

Facebook started out as a platform for college kids and teens. Today, if I believe what I read, those folks are moving to Tumblr and similar platforms, while Facebook has become a place for “old people”.

But today doesn’t matter. What matters is that over the next 30 years, a lot of our Facebook accounts will be abandoned, because we’ll either lose interest — or die. And lots of us (okay, most of us) won’t have lifted a finger to protect or preserve the digital treasures we once shoveled onto Facebook.

A very few people will make sure their heirs know their user names and passwords, so they can reacquire what’s stored in those accounts. But how many of those heirs will even bother? Who cares what Grandpa posted on Facebook all those years ago? We’ve seen it all anyway, haven’t we? Life is for the living, and we’re busy.

Thus a lot of those photos, probably an overwhelming majority, will become digital unclaimed freight. In theory, they won’t belong to Facebook. (Although they may, depending on how Facebook changes its terms of service, and what laws may be passed by the legislators being wined and dined as we speak by Facebook’s lobbyists.) But let’s assume they’re still “yours”, even if you are, technically, dead.

Fact remains, possession is nine-tenths of the law. More important, you, or your estate, probably won’t have any documentation of the photos. Outside Facebook’s database, the only place where that documentation might once have existed will be Grandpa’s 15-year-old laptop or flash drive. Neither of which will work anymore.

It’s that documentation that gives the photos their value and meaning. It’s the labels. The descriptions. The time-and-place details. The identities of people in the pictures. The comments and rankings. Facebook — and only Facebook — will own all of that.

Because we — knowingly, and of our own free will — gave it all to Facebook.

So what will happen?

Facebook will have the world’s largest collection of historically priceless photos — and the power to monetize it!

At some point, Facebook will possess the world’s largest collection of historically priceless photos. It may or may not claim legal ownership; who cares? Any kid who can operate a lemonade stand or paper route could figure out ways to make millions from such a collection. Facebook’s marketing geniuses can parlay that same custody into billions.

For starters, Facebook can put its collection of unclaimed photos online, for searching by interested parties. It may even return them to their rightful heirs, assuming anyone steps up. But it can charge access fees or finder’s fees. It can sell apps and targeted ads. It can create derivative works and virtual tours. Facebook’s money machine will be in high gear.

And I repeat: I’m not criticizing Facebook for being in this position. We’re the ones entrusting Facebook with this priceless legacy that must be preserved for posterity. Any company performing such a service deserves to be compensated — and this is undeniably a service.

We just need to know what we’re doing — and also to know our alternatives. Because there are alternatives.


Lots of people won’t believe the scenario I’m describing. I know because, of the few people I’ve already discussed it with, a high percentage dismiss it. Their objections bear examining.

✦ One stock objection: “Most of the photos on Facebook are worthless. They’re just pictures of somebody’s cat. Facebook can’t use them to make money.”

Not sure where this “somebody’s cat” canard comes from. I’ve heard it lots of times: It seems to have become a standard cultural metaphor for sneering at the content on Facebook.

It’s just not true! Have you actually looked at Facebook lately? Stood back and thought about the stream of stuff that flashes by, every minute? How many cat pictures do you see?

Okay, there are some cat pictures there. I’ve posted some myself! However, lots of people on Facebook are fabulous photographers — and they post their very best, cream-of-the-crop pictures. In the past few days, I’ve watched friends post their best shots of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls. Every imaginable tourist attraction. Every historic site and occasion.

But also, every lesser-known, yet important, site and occasion. Restaurants in Portsmouth. Car dealerships in Tucson. Every chimp, giraffe, and emu in every zoo, anywhere. Every family milestone, every gathering, reunion, graduation, business conference, swimming party, hike, you name it. It’s all pictured on Facebook, in high definition and vibrant color.

I have good friends who are professional or semi-professional photographers. Some of them use high-end SLR cameras with fancy zoom lenses and special filters. They understand shutter speeds, F-stops, backlighting. They shoot weddings and glamor portraits and whatnot.

And every other moment, every day, they’re taking brilliant photos and shipping the best off to Facebook. Somebody’s cat? Give me a break!

✦ Another objection: “So what? It’s all a huge mess of stuff no one will ever be able to sort through or make sense of.”

Um, sorry. When we say that, we aren’t describing Facebook’s photo database. We’re describing the piles of old negatives we dumped into shoeboxes forty years ago, or the deteriorating flash drives we dumped into the same shoebox five years ago.

Facebook is different. Remember, when we uploaded the photos, we detailed when and where they were taken. We may have identified our friends and family who are in them.

But if we didn’t, Facebook allows — and encourages — others to “tag” them. Remember how often you get a notice: “So-and-so tagged so-and-so in so-and-so’s photo”? Happens all the time.

Even when it doesn’t, it still doesn’t matter. Because Facebook — like the government — has facial-recognition software that can identify people in its photos. If you’ve ever been named in a photo anywhere on the Internet (not just on Facebook), then you can automatically be tagged in any photo that shows your face.

Isn’t that why it’s called “Facebook”?

Similar comments could be made, I suppose, about other social networks such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+. Also photo-sharing cloud services such as Flickr. But for right now, none of these others even remotely compare with Facebook for speed or volume of data acquisition.

What Should We Do?

If you’d prefer not to work for Facebook as an unpaid volunteer and photo-donor, then remind yourself that Facebook is just a website. That’s all it is. That’s all it’s ever been or ever will be.

Knowing this, you can register your own name as a dot-com and, using that name, create your own website. In other words, if your name is Kite Weatherby, then claim ownership of the name KiteWeatherby.com — and build a website around it.

Display your photos on your own digital property!

Then display your photos there, on your own digital property. Your own tract of land, so to speak, on the World Wide Web. The name, the website, and the stuff on it will all be indisputably yours. After your death, it will become the property of your heirs.

Knowing this, be sure, also, to make your digital property (including photos) an explicit and official part of your estate. Bequeath it in your will to someone who will value it and put it to good use.

And if that digital legacy includes photos stored on Facebook (or Google+ or any other cloud service), do specify those treasures in your will. Make sure your heirs can get whatever account/password information they need to access your stuff.

I see nothing wrong with posting links on Facebook to our photos, particularly if we have included watermarks with copyright information designating them as ours. So long as Facebook continues to honor “delete” requests (per the Ars Technica article cited in the update above), our digital property should remain safe.

Google, by the way, has policies that encourage you to designate your digital heir or heirs. If all Google+ account holders do as Google has asked, then Google+ will not have the “problem” of amassing trillions of unclaimed photographic treasures. The “don’t be evil” folks are living up to their motto, at least in this instance.

Finally, whatever else you do, always keep well-organized, well-documented physical backups of your digital property, photographic and otherwise. Facebook and others want your stuff to be in their sole custody, as insurance for the day when you lose track of it. So don’t lose track.


Train Image:
Image: “Leaving Whitefish”. Photographer: Drew Jacksich from San Jose, CA
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
File Link: Wikimedia Commons


Leave a Comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *