The past few years, I’ve been consistently fascinated with Facebook’s desire to present its users with “memories”. This blog post, like many here on my site, acts merely as an initial foothold on my climb through this topic.
Unless you’re over a certain age today, you’re most likely living parts of your life across multiple social media apps. Right now Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook are still popular apps with millions of users. Many of us spend a significant amount of time within these apps – even if some of us don’t want to admit either the time or the content we generate are always “significant”. These apps now act as digital repositories for mostly our photographic records of our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and activities. Before I return to my main points about these spaces’ attempts at active memory construction, I want to first cover a little history and provide some context.
Briefly an overview of significant social media app origins. MySpace and Linked In both began in 2003, followed by Facebook and YouTube, respectively, over the next two years. Then in 2006 Facebook opened up to the public and Twitter began. Instagram and SnapChat would follow in 2010 and 2011.
Now let’s focus on apps who began to specifically offer memory functionality to its users. First, on December 16, 2010, Facebook users accidentally got a look at some prototypes from the app including Facebook Memories as reported by tech journalist Josh Constine (2010, para. 1). Memories added a timeline to the interface and allowed users to switch between years and see total counts for likes, events, added friends, and status updates.
Then Jonathan Wegener and Benny Hong created Timehop, originally titled 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo during Foursquare’s Hackathon in February 2011. 4SquareAnd7YearsAgo originally showed you a user who had the same check-ins as you on Foursquare exactly one year prior (Stromberg, 2015, para. 11). A little over a year later, Wegener and Hong’s creation was released as an app, at about the same time the Instagram hashtag Throwback Thursday (#TBT) became popular. User embracement of the hashtag helped build momentum for the popularity of Timehop.
Roughly two and half years later, on March 24, 2015, Facebook officially announced their On This Day feature. The feature shows users status updates, photos, or posts they had been tagged in from exactly one, two, or several years ago. Constine, writing at the time for TechCrunch, believed the release was a direct result of Timehop successfully hitting six million users daily and referred to On This Day as a “clone” (2015, para. 1).
Artie Konrad, a Facebook user experience researcher whose doctoral studies focused on “technology mediated reflection” saw On This Day’s role as managing personal memories so that the stories from a user’s life can be told (D’Onfro, 2016, para. 6, 9). Thousands of Facebook users were surveyed about how Facebook should engage with user “memories”. These survey results revealed a desire to see memories of fun, interesting, and important moments that a user would not necessarily take the time to revisit. Interestingly, as of 2016, Facebook users could not completely turn off these memory features.
Last year, on June 11, 2018, Facebook then announced they have consolidated the location of all of your Facebook memories by launching “Memories”. In this press release attributed to product manager Oren Hod, it is stated some 90 million FB users use the On This Day feature. The new consolidated Memories section includes On This Day, Friends Made On This Day, Recaps of Memories, and Memories You May Have Missed.
So, it is at this point that a reader might think something along the lines of “This isn’t memory; memory is ‘real’ or organic and that memory exists in the minds-eye, not some photograph or Instagram post”. Collective memory scholar José van Dijck encourages us to reconfigure our understanding of the relationship between mind, technology, and culture with her term mediated memories. The old term “mediation of memories” is no longer apt. Rather “Memory is not mediated by media, but media and memory mutually constitute our everyday experiences. Media and memory inscribe and transform each other” (van Dijck, 2008, 76). So, whatever issue we may have about Facebook’s role in memory construction, it does not reside within this point. Rather, let’s move forward so we can reach the trouble-spots.
Rutgers sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel (1981) explains the significant role calendar construction plays in constructing and maintaining group identities since a unique temporal order shared by a particular group acts as both a unifier and separator (70). The power of temporal order is revealed through its role in establishing state allegiances and identities through routinized ritual. The calendar as a symbol of temporal order acts as another tool available to help citizens “think the state” and maintain imagined communities (Anderson, 1983). Often these routines and rituals on the calendar are markers of remembrance that act to reaffirm current identities by mooring them to past ones. Anniversaries that fall on rounded, easy-to-remember, or multiples of five years are perceived as possessing greater significance than other odd or half-year marks (e.g. “75th” rather than “74th”). So, in order to establish the modern nation-state, calendars are as effective if not more so, then armies, governmental bodies, or parades to create the group identity and allegiance. Temporal order and the calendar as symbol for this structure connects the citizen to her state, demarcating the profane from the sacred days which help to reaffirm this identity.
So, based on van Dijck’s work, we understand that the issue is not just that media plays a role in memory construction because it is the interplay between memory and a medium that creates our memories. Also, based on Eviatar Zerubavel’s work, we are not surprised that Facebook plays a role in memory construction and identity maintenance because the traditional calendar has already long performed this role. What then is different and unique in regard to social media’s attempts at memory construction and maintenance, using Facebook’s efforts as an example?
My first main point regards the speed, amount of data, addictive qualities, and mobility of social media apps. While its true a traditional calendar nonetheless helped citizens to “think the state” thus achieving the strongest example of influence (internalization), it nonetheless equated to a few significant days per calendar year that, when combined with ritual and ceremony helped reinforce group identities. Now, the speed at which Facebook memories can be called up and reflected upon allow for a strengthening of this internalization. Furthermore, the amount of records able to be stored and called up almost instantly, adds to the depth of this archive of memory. So, a very deep backlog of memories can be called up nearly instantaneously. We now add to that the potential addictive nature of social media app usage. It was one thing to know a normal or average day was designated as “Founder’s Day” on the traditional calendar, but it required some effort to go look it up or possibly be reminded of it. Now, due to users nearly constantly being on their phones, we can think the archive and be structured by it the same way we allow other app queues to organize our daily lives. Finally, the mobility of smartphone-based social media apps means that the “digital calendar” is always with us physically and – for some users – practically a part of their hand.
Before I make my final points to add to what I’ve just laid out, I first want to provide an example of Facebook memories from my own life.
In either later October or the first week of November of 2011, I sent a friend from graduate school a plush dinosaur stuffed animal for her newborn son. This was a physical act of gift giving a toy to a mother for her child to eventually enjoy when he became cognizant enough to do so.
On November 7, 2011, my graduate school friend and new mother chose to photograph her child with the gift (adorably) and posted it to her Facebook feed. The photography was captioned “[My son] has a new best friend – Jonathan the dinosaur – a generous gift from Jonathan Bullinger & (redacted)”. (see image A below).
As with all of our social media behavior, my friend chose to translate my physical gift giving into a visual and textual record that is both private and public at the same time. For myself and the small audience observing, this visual / textual record will become the primary trace for my act of giving gift. The receivers – who presumably spent more time with the gift – will possess additional memories and possibly records.
I received a wonderful feeling of positive emotions upon seeing my friend’s post. Not just because she chose to take the time to make her receiving of the gift a public / private record but that she also chose to name the stuffed animal after me was both a kind and warm gesture on her part. Yet, like we do in our lives stuffed with too much information, I probably at best saved off the photo to my local drive and moved on to the myriad of daily mundane details of everyday life.
Exactly seven years later, on November 7, 2018, Facebook presented me with my friend’s photo and text as an official Facebook Memory. I normally don’t share Memories Facebook presents to me for two reasons. One, I’m not too sure that I like engaging in such behavior and this is partly why I’m writing this present blog post. Second, many of my posts are either sarcastic in nature or some sort of pop art that I enjoy and neither particularly represent a personal memory in the traditional sense. However, because I had such warm feelings associated with my friend’s original post from 2011, I chose to share it as a Memory (see image B below).
I captioned the Memory “Well [grad school friend] – now I feel old [winking smiley-face emoji]” My friend responded to my memory by replying to the post “Feel old y’all! Feel old!” with a new, current photo of her same child holding Jonathan the dinosaur (see image C below).
The fact that in the original photo the child was an infant laying next to the toy roughly the same size as it and now he is standing, old enough to cradle it like a proper stuffed animal efficiently evokes the passage of time and the need for support symbols throughout childhood.
It is here that I want to make my second point: automation. Yes, a particular date on an old-school calendar will always be there, year in and year out, but again, it either requires you to take the effort to look at it or internalize it so strongly, you do not need to look. Here, Facebook Memories is an automated system designed to remind you of events that happened (for example) 1, or 5, or 7 years ago “On This Day”. Much like the rest of social media the information is just one piece in a constant deluge of content, often feeling “random”, without context, and appearing and disappearing quickly from one’s mind. So, it is more a passive relationship between the user and her digital calendar – neither needing the effort to look it up, nor requiring the focus to “learn it” so strongly as to internalize it. Rather, it recalls the photographic or textual data based on date, shows it to the user, frames it as significant, and the user than reacts to the mnemonic stimuli by either ignoring it, sharing it as is, or adding to the record of remembrance by adding a new framework (new text or photo).
Facebook acts as a persistent linear trace of this memory or moment, growing and building on top of itself, becoming its own thing that may actually be separate from the act or behavior itself, especially if the user sort of passively re-shares without too much engagement. In the case of my dinosaur example, I can interpret this in two ways. Initially, I’d forgotten I’d given the plush dinosaur as a gift, so in a certain sense, it wasn’t much of a cherished memory for me. Then, when prompted by Facebook, I re-shared the photo and my friend actively added to the initial memory by both commenting and updating the photo record with her child currently with the same beloved toy dinosaur. However, my guess is that in the future, this particular Facebook Memory will be just that – a separate digital item that increasingly separates itself from the original behavior. It will be recalled, curated, and added to, but my friend and I will be maintaining the trace when prompted, rather than the original memory of giving and receiving a child’s gift.
This thought about automation and the future helps to set up my last brief points. They both have to do with having the right and the ability to choose to remember, and to choose to forget. I honestly forget exactly where I heard this phrase, but I nonetheless re-use it here: “Beat Your Ghost”. My interpretation is that everyone has the right to not be stalked or “haunted” by a past, particularly one curated by another entity or institution. Rather than like a Pavlovian dog responding to the prompt of a digital memory, users should (and need to) take a more active role in how and why they use these digital mnemonic repositories. This connects to my last point regarding “automated memories”.
As of this writing, there are now small AI cameras being sold that are tiny enough to be placed on a shelf at home. The idea being, in our busy lives, we often don’t have the time to be present for every moment, particularly in regard to the raising of small children. So, one possible usage would be to let the camera automatically record your infant or toddler doing whatever they would do during their day and having these still images automatically be available to you via your phone while you’re at work or wherever. This scenario begs the question: Does one have to be present in order for something to be considered a “mediated memory”?
The extreme example of this would be: AI shelf camera shoots 10 images of little Suzy playing at home on Oct. 24, 2018. It automatically sends these photos to your account on your phone. You choose 3 of the 10 images and upload them with a caption to your Facebook account. Your social media network both likes and comments on these three photos. On Oct. 24, 2023, Facebook Memories tells you “5 Years Ago Today, This Was You Most Commented On Post”. Is this YOUR memory? Will you, should you remember and re-share it on the 10th, 15th, and 20th anniversaries?
Eviatar Zerubavel’s work on calendars’ role in establishing temporal order and its resultant group identities provides a useful foundation for thinking through social media memory. Social media’s speed, data storage size, addictive qualities, mobility, and automation augment the insights of temporal order elucidated by Zerubavel. Its automation, and at times, passivity on the part of the user, allows for the potential for the digital trace (Facebook Memory) of the memory to eventually become routinized, isolated, and ultimately detached from the original behavior or event. The original participants eventually just curate data and maintain the record, separate from the original shared memory. When potential AI is incorporated into the record creation itself (not just prompting for its remembrance) then it questions the role of humans within memory making and the very nature of “experiences” themselves.
Constine, J. (2010, Dec. 16). Facebook Memories Shows Users a Year by Year Summary of Their Activity. Adweek. https://www.adweek.com/digital/memories-year-summary-activity/
Constine, J. (2015, Mar. 24). Facebook’s Timehop Clone “On This Day” Shows You Your Posts From Years Ago. Techcrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2015/03/24/facehop/
D’Onfro, J. (2016, Mar. 24). How Facebook Decides Which Memories To Show You In One Of Its Most ‘Sensitive’ Features. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-on-this-day-feature-and-research-2016-3
Gheller, J. (2015, Mar. 24). Facebook Announces On This Day. Facebook Press Release. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2015/03/introducing-on-this-day-a-new-way-to-look-back-at-photos-and-memories-on-facebook/
Hod, O. (2018, June 11). All of Your Facebook Memories Are Now in One Place. Facebook Press Release. https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/06/all-of-your-facebook-memories-are-now-in-one-place/
Johnson, M.J. (2017, Sept. 28). New Media Timeline. KeyMedia Solutions. https://keymediasolutions.com/news/social-media/evolution-of-social-media-platforms/
Stromberg, J. (2015). I Thought Nostalgia Apps Like Timehop Were Pointless. Then I Started Using One. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2015/4/6/8337133/timehop-facebook-nostalgia
Van Dijck, J. (2008). Mediated memories: a snapshot of remembered experience. In J. Kooijman, P. Pisters, & W. Strauven (Eds.), Mind the screen: Media concepts according to Thomas Elsaesser (pp. 71-81). Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Zerubavel, E. (1981). Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.