Tim: I think most people reading this either know Social Fixer or are going to click a link to find out more about it. But in brief, this is a plug-in that lets people view their feeds on Facebook more efficiently. And a few days ago, you posted a note that Facebook has asked you to remove some crucial functionality – can you talk about how that came to be?
Matt: Well, a few weeks ago, my page that I have for the extension itself, it is on Facebook, an official page, I logged in and found that it was unpublished. So that meant that nobody could see it anymore and I had a note that said it has been removed because of spam. So no other explanation than that. So I wrote a blogpost about that questioning why that happened, why there wasn’t any more information than that given to me about what the cause was, and questioning basically how stable is Facebook for a business if everything can be taken away in a moment’s notice?
So I wrote a blogpost that got a lot of attention, and somehow it got circulated to the right people and someone at Facebook sent me an e-mail and said, “Hey, we would like to talk about your page and the situation around it.” So I had a conversation with them on the phone, and we talked about why it was removed and the situation around that. And they told me basically I could get the page back if I made some modifications to the extension to remove features that they don’t find acceptable under their terms.
Tim: To be clear the reason that this entire plug-in exists is to make it easier to read the page or more efficiently. What sort of features do people get out of using Social Fixer that Facebook doesn’t provide on its own at least right now?
Matt: Well, the big things and what they are arguing about right now is that it allows you to move posts to tabs, so you have your regular newsfeed but at the top are tabs just like a tabs browser, and by default it moves all the games to their own tab, so you don’t have to deal with that, and are mixed with all your friends and family, if you are playing Candy Crush or Farmville or some other game, it is in its own tab and you can focus on those posts when you want to. Then you can also set up your own custom filters to say posts with a certain keyword they should go to a tab, maybe I will call it ‘political’ and everything political goes there based on keyword, so I can kind of segment all the posts in my newsfeed and process them in the way that I want to digest the information. So?
Tim: No I am sorry, please continue.
Matt: Not only that but you can hide posts some people find language offensive and they hide posts based on the language or for example there are a lot of people that didn’t want to see spoilers for Breaking Bad when the finale come on. You can set up a custom filter to say anything with a certain keyword even move it to a tab or don’t show it to me and then later I can come back and view it. Aside from all the newsfeed filtering there are a lot of other features that fix little quirks about Facebook, little annoyances, things that don’t quite work the way you want it to. And I try to go in and fix those for the users and make it a little bit better place to visit.
Tim: As Facebook changes, as they frequently have their layout and quite how is the experience is for a user, you must have over the last couple of years, you’ve been tweaking these features, so that seems like a lot of work, this isn’t your day job, how much time do you put into this on an average day or week? I don’t know how you allocate your time.
Tim: But you are not working for Facebook itself so it seems like some of the changes that they’d like you to make are ones that anyone theoretically could do on their own home computer by filtering based on these inputs. You are not doing anything on their side of the computer connection.
Tim: So that brings me to the reasons that Facebook actually cited in telling you to remove features. Could you explain why you believe that their reasoning shouldn’t apply to you as a developer?
Matt: Sure. One of the main reasons that they give for me having to change what I do is that there is a line in the terms of service that says, ‘as a user of Facebook, you agree not to do anything that alters the display or proper function of the site’ and I think that that is not consistently enforceable, because for example, if they design a site to look a certain way, and a user changes their font size and it renders it differently, is that breaking the rules? If they use a browser that can’t show images correctly, is that breaking the rules? If I have some visual problems, eyesight problems, and I want to change the look to be dark or different colors with contrast, is that breaking the rules?
So there is no way that they can tell a user you have to display the site exactly as they intended. So I think that Social Fixer and other browser extensions are just taking the content that they deliver and tweaking it according to what the individual wants to see. And that’s within their domain to control. Facebook doesn’t have a right to say, “You must display the site exactly as we intended with no modifications.” So I think it is within the user’s control to say, “Once I have the data that you’ve delivered to me, I choose how to display it, and you can’t strictly enforce that.”
Social Fixer does nothing to their servers, it does nothing to the content midstream before it is delivered to the user. I don’t intercept any traffic or anything like that. So every user of the extension gets all of the content that Facebook is sending to them, and then the user decides, “I just want to display it differently.” And they should have a right to do that. So I think if Facebook is enforcing that terms of service on my extension, they have a lot bigger problems to deal with, because there is no way they can enforce that. And then the other rule that they cite as part of the application developer terms is they say that you can’t create a function that Facebook explicitly does not give to users.
The example there is the Friendtracker that says, when you are unfriended, it tells you who unfriended you - they highlighted that specifically in the conversation with me and they said that’s something that we think is harmful to users and something that users should not have so we don’t allow it, and your feature enables that, so you are breaking that rule - I am giving them a feature that Facebook specifically does not offer. But again I am doing it on the users’ behalf in their browser and not modifying Facebook’s function at all. So I don’t think that applies to me. And I am not using their API under the developer platform, so I am not really bound by those rules.
Tim: You have, though, in the end decided that it is worth doing what they like rather than basically go out and say like, you can’t be everyone’s Robin Hood and the decision seems to make more sense to you as a developer - do you have second thoughts about that, or is that simply the practical upshot of this kind of rule?
Matt: Well, I have second thoughts. I am thinking about it a lot in my head and trying to figure out is there another way. I am trying to get a hold of Facebook again and say to them, we will make a compromise. Can I change some features and not others?Is there any way that we can maintain the functionality that so many people like without breaking the rules? Part of the reason why I made the blogpost was to kind of highlight the consistency of going after one extension when that’s a rule that they could apply to many other pieces of software, and they are choosing not to. So users are left wondering “What can I and cannot do?When is Facebook going to come after me.” But for now, when it comes down to it, I have to do whatever I have to do to maintain my access to the site to keep the extension up and running and not get sued and all of those things, right. So if it comes down to it, you know, I have to bend to their will and do what they say.
Tim: To keep getting sued sounds like an expensive outcome for you, and you see that.
Matt: You are right. I might have a problem with that.
Tim: Is this the first time in the history of Social Fixer, this is not a new extension, so is this the first time that it actually had an objection to the things that your software does?
Matt: As far as the functionality, yes, this is the first time I have heard from them. Previously, when it started out it was called Better Facebook the name of the extension was Better Facebook, modeled after other similar extensions Better Gmail, Better Ibibo those kind of things. They objected to using their name in the extension name, so I had to rename it, change my website to a new address, do all those things. So I agreed with all of that, I understand trade mark law, so that was fine. It was kind of a hassle but this is the first time they’ve asked me to actually change functionality.
Tim: Okay. Are you aware of other extensions, other plug-in writers who have faced the same sort of attention from Facebook?
Matt: Yeah, there is another extension called FB Purity - it stands for Fluff Busting Purity now, that’s ____10:24 and he has had issues with them, and I’ve talked with him a little bit and he is taking an aggressive response to Facebook and not done everything that they wanted him to do, so he is banned right now. He can’t be on Facebook, and if you post a link to his site, it marks it as spam and you can’t post it. So that’s the kind of situation I want to avoid. Because I don’t want to be in the camp of something that looks like spyware malware and users question it. So I want to be legitimate. And there is another extension called FB Unseen, I think that is what it is called, and its function is to say when you receive a message don’t send a response back that says you’ve read it, whether it is a chat or mail, and that was just taken down recently. Facebook contacted them and said you can’t do that.
Tim: Going forward with your development work on Social Fixer, Facebook has asked you to remove certain features – does that mean Social Fixer won’t be around?Or can you create other features that are around the ones that Facebook has objected to?
Matt: It will definitely stay around. There are a lot of other features that people find useful.For example, visual things like themes, changing the look and style the colors and everything of the site, - they haven’t objected to that. So those things will stick around. All of the little user interface tweaks for example, when you hit enter in a post or a comment right now, it submits it, so one of the features is to avoid that. Because that annoys some people. And there is a whole bunch of tabs of features that all get to stay, it is just the filtering of the newsfeed that they seem to have an objection with. That along with the Friendtracker.
Tim: Okay. Have you gotten any support that you know of from inside of Facebook? Have you gotten any impression that some of Facebook some of the unseen people there actually like what you do?
Matt: Well, a few years ago, there was a user inside of Facebook that used Social Fixer and he actually got me lined up for a job interview and I went through that whole process with them. So I know there are at least a few people within Facebook but I wonder if they have a rule against it or something, I don’t know, but other than that, no; no contact inside of Facebook from anybody that says, hey you know you are doing something useful.
Tim: And Matt, Finally, I know that you take donations to support your development work. Has that been successful to you?Has that sort of helped defray some of the time and energy you put into making the software?
Matt: Definitely, I have a lot of hosting costs because I have a lot of users and they hit my site frequently, so my hosting costs and then some support related costs. Donations cover all of that, and then they give me a little extra side income that I use to save up maybe and take my family on a little vacation once in a while. Certainly not enough to quit my jobor to call this my main career, but it is nice and I totally appreciate all of the people who do donate and kind of support the cause. When it is 2 a.m. in the morning and I am working on a bug, and I think, you know what, people are generous with me so I am going to be generous with my time. It works out for everyone that way.
Tim: But not enough yet for a legal defense fund?
Matt: No, definitely not.