A Portrait of Facebook: “Creative Technologist” pulls every Profile Picture from Facebook

Alison K. Lanier

What does the face of Facebook look like? The website has over one billion members, roughly equivalent to the population of India, CNN reported. One website has endeavored to depict this massive body of information by combining every Facebook profile picture into one dizzying multicolor swamp of selfies and cats wearing hats. The response from internet-goers, though, has been less than complimentary.

Nvate Facebook, Facebook profile pictures, Faces of Facebook, Natalia Rojas

Where are you in the collage?
Credit: The Faces of Facebook

Although the scope of the project is admirable and stands as a piece of art, access to this data on such a huge scale has become an unsettling demonstration of the availability of personal Facebook pictures, despite even moderate security settings.

The page, called “The Faces of Facebook,” is a complete collection of Facebook profile pictures, over 1.27 billion images in all. The site appears almost like a gray static fuzz, a mess of white noise; the number of images are almost impossible to perceive.

Facebook members can log into the site via their Facebook accounts and be brought directly to their picture’s place in the collage. The photos are arranged chronologically by the date the users joined. One aspect of the website is the idea that you can compare your own join-up date with that of your friends.

The project was conceived by a self-described “creative technologist,” Natalia Rojas, CNN reported. “I was playing around with Facebook API, and I discovered that there is a way to access everyone’s public information with a very simple, but not obvious, algorithm,” she said in an email to CNN. “At that time, I thought I could do something beautiful/interesting with that, like showing them all together. Then I started to write the code to achieve it.”

Privacy Policy Violations?

While this response is perhaps the best possible outcome for a scenario in which an intelligent and skilled computer scientist with the skills to manually collect these billion-and-a-quarter images actually succeeds in doing so. The question of security is one of the foremost responses from Facebook users who encounter the site, where their image is—ostensibly—part of the enormous collection of images. The unrestricted access to images is compounded by the fact that the images all link to the users’ Facebook pages.

Yet the artist insists that she isn’t violating any of Facebook’s famously variable privacy regulations. By only linking to the profiles, she claimed to CNN, she is only making public what is accessible anyway by the users’ own security settings on the individual accounts. It took Rojas a year and a half to complete the code, she told CNN, stripping out the anonymous, gray face-images that mark inactive profiles.

Personal Data into Art

Rojas said it would take 36 years, five months, nine days and six hours to view all of the images individually, according to the Daily Mail. “There we are, all mixed up: large families, women wearing burkas, many Leo Messis, people supporting same-sex marriages or r4bia, Chihuahuas, Indian Gods, tourists pushing the leaning Tower of Pisa, selfies, newborns, Ferraris, studio black and white portraits, a lot of weddings but zero divorces, ID photos, faces framed in hearts, best friends, manga characters, politic logos, deep looks, love messages, eyes, memes, smiles, sweet grandparents and some not-yet-censured pictures,” Rojas said to the newspaper.

Rojas’ artistic vision is not particularly popular among Facebook users, however. The site will stay up, she told the Mail, as long as there is substantial traffic, but she does have concerns about the cost of keeping the site running. Her art project becomes an intensely personal level of exposure when one considers that anyone and everyone’s profile picture, if a profile picture has been posted, will appear on the site.

Somewhere in the white noise is your profile picture and a link to your profile. Treating people’s public information like it is a Tumblr scroll page or a StumbleUpon wander does cross a line, transmuting personal data into raw art project material. Art for art’s sake—or art examining social trends— becomes a little more invasive when the art is composed of up-to-date information about over a billion people.

Hacking the Personal Databank

Facebook’s security is another unspoken victim in this piece: that the artist was actually able to amass so much information—granted with over a year of work devoted to developing the algorithm—with a homemade script is more than a little concerning. Particularly when Facebook is probably the only place on the Internet where this sort of information is amassed in this bulk and centrality.

Visit the Faces of Facebook project to find your place in the collage.

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