Netvizz, the Facebook app created by researcher Bernhard Rieder at the University of Amsterdam announced its death today on the 21st of August 2019.
Netvizz a research tool used by hundreds of academics to gather public Facebook data has gathered more than 300 academic citations and has been used to produce studies on everything from Norwegian political party videos, to public opinion about the London 2012 Olympic Games, to Asian American student conferences. But now this fruitful source of data has been shut down. The app developed by Rieder, which had been available since 2010, enabled users in the past to gain insight into Facebook pages.
The app has been operating in ‘zombie mode’ for the past year and a half. In March 2018, it was announced that a researcher in 2014 handed over information from millions of Facebook users to the Cambridge Analytica data company. The data was collected through a Facebook app that collected not only data from users, but also from their friends – a feature that was disabled on the platform in April 2015.
As a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook announced sharper surveillance of all ‘suspicious’ apps. Existing Facebook apps also had to submit a request to keep access to that function. Facebook has since rejected Netvizz several times.
Facebook’s action sounds a death knell for civic access to public Facebook data.
With apps like Netvizz gone, there is no accessible way of gathering large amounts of public page Facebook data. Facebook offers only highly restrictive search options for normal users. It has started new initiatives to offer access to its data for scholarly research, but these are dependent on a “hand-picked” group of scholars who “define the research agenda”. Without broader access for other researchers, the social, academic and political consequences are dark.
Rieder wrote on Twitter to be relieved that the uncertainty surrounding Netvizz has come to an end. “The tool has had a good time, but I am not going to lie: I am relieved that it is over.”
It is a sad day for Facebook research. Many thanks to Rieder who worked hard in the face of Facebook, who as an organisation tried to make it as hard as possible for researchers to hold the corporation and powerful to account.