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SchoolFeed: The Facebook app everyone needs to avoid [Updated with SchoolFeed’s response]

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Update: SchoolFeed CEO Lance Tokuda has responded to my questions. See his email in full below.

Late one evening about a month ago, I received a notification on Facebook saying that one of my friends had invited me to join SchoolFeed, a Classmates.com-like social network that connects users with old high school buddies. The service uses a Facebook Canvas app to scrape a wide breadth of user data, and automatically builds user profiles on Facebook and its stand-alone site. Mindlessly, I approved the SchoolFeed app — which is the only way to join SchoolFeed — and promptly forgot all about it.

The next day, I noticed a surprising number of notifications from SchoolFeed in my inbox saying that others had added me to their network. Intrigued that so many were using the service, I clicked on SchoolFeed, and quickly realized that I would likely never use it. I’ve already connected with most of my classmates on Facebook, after all. Why do I need an entirely separate service to do the same? Bored and put-off, I promptly removed the app from my Facebook account, and decided to forget the whole thing all over again — or so I thought.

Frustration builds

Since deleting the SchoolFeed app on Facebook, I have received more than a dozen notifications saying that “so-and-so has added [me] as a friend on SchoolFeed.” Odd, I thought, considering I’d removed the app weeks ago. I checked my list of apps on Facebook and, sure enough, SchoolFeed was nowhere to be found. I asked some of my friends on Facebook if they’d had a similar experience. They had.

“I’ve told it I dont know how many times to block the [SchoolFeed] app, but it doesnt do anything,” says Alan Hughes, a friend and fellow Facebook user. “I just told a post from the app on my Timeline two times to ‘Remove All Actions by SchoolFeed,’ and then marked it as spam, and each time the post stays exactly where it is, nothing has changed. And it has never even been listed in my apps list.”

A number of other Facebook friends told similar stories. Those I spoke with also said they didn’t know that they were signing up for an entirely different service, outside the confines of Facebook, when they approved the SchoolFeed app. With my suspicions confirmed, I decided to look deeper into why SchoolFeed maintains user accounts even though those users have revoked approval for the Facebook app. So far, I’ve been met only with silence.

What is SchoolFeed, anyway?

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Before I go on, some background: Founded by Lance Tokuda, co-founder and former CEO of social game-maker RockYou, SchoolFeed is a free “classmate network.” SchoolFeed allows users to not only find people who attended the same high school, but also people in the same graduating year — a granular search option that Facebook lacks. Unlike its competitor Classmates.com, SchoolFeed is free to use. SchoolFeed users can earn virtual currency on the site by posting content, adding friends, or other activities. As TechCrunch reports, the virtual currency can then be used to play Bingo, or access real-life yearbooks, which users can upload to the site. And just this month, SchoolFeed debuted a new service that allows users pay $40 to have SchoolFeed upload their entire yearbook for them.

Launched last summer, SchoolFeed currently boasts around 10 million users, and has so far raised about $1.75 million in funding from First Round Capital, CrossLink Capital, Interwest Partners, and SK Telecom.

Questions, questions, questions

The SchoolFeed app pulls nearly all your personal and network information from your Facebook account — a detail I foolishly overlooked before approving the app. This includes all your basic information (name, gender, list of friends, etc), profile information (likes, dislikes, movies, books, music, etc), and all your photos. It also allows SchoolFeed to send you emails at the address associated with your Facebook login, and to post updates and game scores on your behalf. While this might be a bit much for some users, access of this kind is not out of the norm. Naively, I assumed that access to this information would be revoked as soon as I disallowed the app. Not so.

After I realized that removing the SchoolFeed app did nothing, I visited the SchoolFeed website to see how to actually delete my profile. I immediately hit a brick wall: In order to delete your SchoolFeed account, you must re-approve the Facebook app, once again allowing the service access to all your information. At that point, I started to get angry. So I did what any perturbed tech journalist does in such a scenario: I started asking questions.

My first email went out to Facebook. Here are the questions I sent:

1. If a Facebook user approves SchoolFeed, but later removes the app, is SchoolFeed violating any terms of service by keeping a user’s Facebook data, even though the user has revoked the app’s approval?

2. If yes, do any other apps do this, and can you provide any examples?

3. Have a significant number of users reported SchoolFeed for being spam?

4. Has Facebook received any other complaints about SchoolFeed?

schoolfeed-3I then took a look into SchoolFeed’s Terms of Service, and privacy policy — documents I imagine practically zero users read before approving the Facebook app. What I found did not boost my opinion of the site, to say the least. Like this bit from the privacy policy, for example:

“SchoolFeed may disclose your personal information to third parties from time to time in our sole discretion. For this reason you should not disclose information to SchoolFeed that you do not want shared with third parties.”

The only contact information I could find for SchoolFeed was a mailing address (useless for my purposes), and a customer support email address. I sent over an interview request to that address, and a day later received an email from none other than SchoolFeed CEO Lance Tokuda, asking that I direct my questions to Vinay Mahagaoka, SchoolFeed’s chief technology officer. So, I did just that.

Here are the questions I sent Mr. Mahagaoka early Tuesday morning:

1. Why did your company choose to require that users sign up/log in via a Facebook application?

2. Why does SchoolFeed maintain a user’s profile after that user has deleted the SchoolFeed Facebook app?

3. Have you received any complaints about keeping users’ profiles open after they delete the Facebook app, and would SchoolFeed considering changing this requirement? Why, or why not?

4. SchoolFeed’s privacy policy reads: “SchoolFeed may disclose your personal information to third parties from time to time in our sole discretion. For this reason you should not disclose information to SchoolFeed that you do not want shared with third parties.”

Does this mean that SchoolFeed may, at any time, sell or lease user data imported from Facebook via the SchoolFeed app to third-parties? Does “third-parties” ever include advertising or marketing companies? And does SchoolFeed’s policy on this matter differ in any way from how Facebook handles user data?

At the time of this writing, I have heard back from neither Facebook nor SchoolFeed (see below) — not particularly surprising, considering all the other press I’ve come across about SchoolFeed has read like press releases.

Conclusion

In the end, I begrudgingly re-approved the SchoolFeed app, and went through the laborious process of skipping setup steps, so that I could actually delete my account. To SchoolFeed’s credit, they make this option bright and clear at the top of the “Help” page.

So, if deleting a SchoolFeed account is so simple, why this superfluous tirade? Because I feel genuinely deceived by SchoolFeed. I believe my right to share my private information how I see fit was violated by not explicitly informing me that my Facebook information would be ported to an entirely different website. Moreover, I’m supremely annoyed that deleting my unwanted SchoolFeed profile required such a run-around — and I know for certain that at least some other Facebook users feel equally duped and frustrated. It is precisely these kinds of garbage tactics that app makers should avoid. Not only does it make me despise your service, it sheds ill light on Facebook, as well. And the fact that neither company bothered to respond to my questions (SchoolFeed has now responded — 3.15.12) suggests they have no good justification for doing business in this manner.

Perhaps I’m wrong about all of this. Perhaps I’m just cranky and need to relax. Perhaps I’m just wasting my time. But if my silly little diatribe about a spammy Facebook app saves some equally poor sap from going through the same hassle, then I’m happy.

Update: SchoolFeed responds

A few moments ago, Mr. Tokuda responded to my questions. Here is his full email below:

Hi Andrew,

I just read your article on digital trends.  Apologies for your bad experience with schoolFeed. Sorry for the delay in responding to your questions, we have a very small team and sometimes it takes more than one day to respond.

1. Why did your company choose to require that users sign up/log in via a Facebook application?

schoolFeed is building a free high school classmates network which connects with Facebook.  Only about 8% of all Facebook users are connected to half their class so this is a great way for many people to reconnect with classmates.  The Facebook platform makes it easy for users to sign up and connect with one click versus re-entering much of their Facebook information.  We will definitely build the ability to sign up without connecting to Facebook, the Facebook connection is only required for our Beta release

2. Why does SchoolFeed maintain a user’s profile after that user has deleted the SchoolFeed Facebook app?

Deleting the schoolFeed Facebook application is different from deleting yourself from schoolFeed.  For example, a user may want to keep their schoolFeed and Facebook experiences separate.  For the Beta release, they had to connect with Facebook initially to sign up but once they sign up, a connection with Facebook is no longer required.  As I mentioned earlier, we will build the ability to sign up without Facebook, that was only a Beta requirement

Not everyone that deletes their schoolFeed application on Facebook wants to delete their schoolFeed profile, photos, questions answered, photos uploaded, link posted, likes, and personal conversations with classmates.  We make it easy to do that on schoolFeed but we let people know exactly what will happen and ask for confirmation first

3. Have you received any complaints about keeping users’ profiles open after they delete the Facebook app, and would SchoolFeed considering changing this requirement? Why, or why not?

We don’t get many reports about deleting the app and how it relates to deleting your schoolFeed account but people do mail support to ask how their account can be deleted.  We tell them to click the big red “Delete my schoolFeed account” button on the Help page.  We make it clear what will be deleted and ask for confirmation.  Our belief is that it is much easier to delete your account on schoolFeed versus most sites we are aware of

If there was a way for us to give people the option of deleting their schoolFeed account when they delete the schoolFeed Facebook application, we’d definitely be open to adding this.

4. SchoolFeed’s privacy policy reads: “SchoolFeed may disclose your personal information to third parties from time to time in our sole discretion. For this reason you should not disclose information to SchoolFeed that you do not want shared with third parties.”   Does this mean that SchoolFeed may, at any time, sell or lease user data imported from Facebook via the SchoolFeed app to third-parties? Does “third-parties” ever include advertising or marketing companies? And does SchoolFeed’s policy on this matter differ in any way from how Facebook handles user data?

Our goal is to create a classmates network and this gives us the freedom to work with third parties to improve our service.  For example, if you graduated in 1990, we could partner with a music provider to share a 1990 top 100 hits list based on that year.  

Selling personal data to third parties is not in our business model.  For example, we would never sell your email address to a third party so they could spam you.

I’m not sure of the details of Facebook’s policy but we are governed by any restrictions placed on Facebook API data by the Facebook terms of use.

Please let me know if you have any further questions.

Thanks,
Lance