Annales Minimi

Reviewing the Year in Review

In the past few weeks, many of my Facebook friends have posted their Years in Review. These reviews are essentially chronologically-ordered lists of some of the images that the person posted that year. Instead of posting my own Year in Review, however, I want to reflect on the historic, problematic, and fascinating human tendency to look back on the events of the past 365 days and try to shape them into a narrative.

The Year in Review is neither new in 2014 nor unique to Facebook. The end of the calendar year has always brought with it more than just eggnog, family gatherings, Oscar-bait movies, and gift returns. As December comes to a close, individuals and media outlets succumb to a sort of ‘annalistic impulse’, the desire to reflect on and catalogue what happened in the previous year.

This annalistic impulse results in countless ‘Best of the Year’ lists. If the sheer volume of such lists is any indication, people love to read them as much as they love to write them. (Just look at Gawker’s aggregate list of lists.) From our vantage point we feel uniquely positioned to look back at the past twelve months and decide what were the most important events, the best cultural artifacts, the biggest pop culture fails. (For example.)

After we categorize the defining moments of 2014, we can put the year in a box and move onto the next logical step: our new year’s resolutions for 2015. (Although sometimes the line between the two can be blurred: I often resolve to watch the movies and read the books that were deemed the best of the previous year.)

As a vantage point, the end of December is somewhat arbitrary. Why should the year we’re reviewing end on December 31 and begin on January 1? For an individual, the year between two birthdays often feels more personally significant. If the new year is about rebirth and growth, it might make more sense located in the spring. And as somebody who has always been part of the academic world, my professional year begins and ends in September. So why give in to the annalistic impulse now?

Or perhaps a better question would be, why is the impulse to write an annal so instinctive and universal? As it turns out, the annalistic impulse — like our calendar year and the word ‘calendar’ itself — can be traced back to ancient Rome.

The word ‘calendar’ comes from the Roman kalends, the first day of each month. The calendar that we use today, the Gregorian calendar, is an improvement on the Julian calendar, which was set by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. A year in the Julian calendar contained .0075 days more than a year in the Gregorian calendar. Although those extra few minutes can make a significant difference in dating over the course of millennia, it’s clear that our calendar is very similar to the ones that the Romans used over 2000 years ago.

Even before Caesar’s calendar reforms, the Romans wrote their earliest histories divided into yearly units. (Some Greek historians did this too, including Thucydides, but not all.) This practice was so universal that the term libri annales, books that contain the events of the year, became synonymous with ‘history’. The first Latin epic written in dactylic hexameter was the Annales of Quintus Ennius. Ennius used the meter of Homer to write a poetic version of a thousand years of Roman history. Livy was heavily influenced by the annalistic tradition in writing his monumental history of the city of Rome. But the paradigmatic annalistic work in Rome was one that has been almost entirely lost to us today: the annales maximi, a recorded list of the events of a given year.

Unlike the main character in the movie Gladiator, the annales maximi were not so called because of their inherent greatness, but rather because they were written by the pontifex maximus, the head priest of Rome. (Although this mistake must have been a common one, as an eighth-century Latin dictionary pedantically states “MAXIMI ANNALES: appellebantur, non magnitudine, sed quod eos pontifex maximus confecisset.”) The chief source of our information about the lost annales maximi is a passage in Cicero’s De Oratore 2.52–3, in which Antonius, one of the participants in the dialogue, says (translation by May and Wisse):

“[Early] history was nothing more than a compilation of yearly chronicles [annales], and for the purpose of this matter and the preservation of the memory of public events, the chief priest [pontifex maximus], from the beginning of history down to the down to the time when Publius Mucius Scaevola was chief priest [~130 BC], committed to writing all the events of each year, and displayed them on a white tablet and exhibited the tablet at his house, in order that the people might have the opportunity to learn about them. These are the records that even today are called the Annales Maximi. A similar type of writing was adopted by many, and they have left only memorials of dates, people, places, and events, devoid of any distinction.”

In Rome, the annales maximi were little more than descriptions of the salient features of that year: magistrates, wars, grain shortages, portents. If we still used that style, the annales maximi of 2014 would list our major political officials, along with the events that the Romans considered ‘prodigies’ — not unusually skilled children, but disturbances in the normal functioning of the natural world. The year’s four eclipses would certainly be mentioned, or at least those visible in the United States, along with the catastrophic drought in California and the Ebola virus.

All of the events listed in the annales maximi were given more or less equal weight and importance. This even-handedness limited the usefulness of the document as a whole. Many scholars believe that historians of early Rome didn’t even consult the annales maximi in their research, although they still paid lip service as Cicero did to the idea that the annales were the beginning of writing down Roman history. The weight that the annales maximi gained by being public and state-sanctioned was counterbalanced by their unwieldy comprehensiveness and their focus on events that ultimately lacked historical importance. Even in Ennius’ time, long before Cicero, the annales maximi were rarely consulted. Their formal structure ended up having a much longer literary afterlife than their content.

Our desire to isolate the defining moments of 2014 is the intellectual descendant of the Roman annalistic tradition. In a way, the appearance of the Facebook Year in Review is opposed to the annales maximi: words are replaced with pictures, public events with private ones. Conceptually, however, they derive from a similar annalistic impulse, and they have the same problematic tendencies.

Although it seems like most users either enjoy or are indifferent to Facebook’s Year in Review feature, it also has its critics. An article in PC Magazine picked up a blog post by Eric Meyer and posed the question ‘What if you don’t want Facebook to review your year?’ In this view, the feature is a spammy attack on users that is insensitive and tone-deaf to those who have lost loved ones in the past twelve months. Many other news outlets (including the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Jezebel, Mashable, and Refinery29, to name just a few) posted sympathetic articles also picking up the story. What happened to Meyer must have been extremely painful, but he mentioned in a follow-up post that he never expected the Year in Review team to face the degree of backlash that it received. On the other end of the criticism spectrum, one of my Facebook friends refused to post his Year in Review because he felt that flaunting how good his year had been was disrespectful to the many, many people whom 2014 had not treated as well as him.

These two critiques—one deeply personal, one political—implicitly focus on two different elements of the Year in Review: its creation, which is presumably meant for the personal enjoyment of the individual whose year it depicts (as the product manager for the Year in Review at Facebook acknowledged in his response to the criticisms), and the option to share it with your friends, which introduces an interpersonal, even performative element.

The first problem is one of audience: who are these annals for? According to Cicero, the annales maximi were written on a whiteboard before being literally set in stone at the end of the year. They may have been difficult to consult, and they ended up being useless not only to the general public but even to Roman historians. Their only value must have been to the pontifices. Similarly, in spite of the much greater ease of sharing, the Year in Review isn’t geared toward a broad audience. I ignore most of the ones that show up on my newsfeed, because a Year in Review seems to me like the kind of thing that will be the most meaningful by far to the person whose year it was. For everyone else, it’s just a series of pictures in chronological order punctuated by occasional captions. Unless you lived the experiences portrayed in the pictures, you aren’t likely to have a strong response.

The second problem is one of curation. As I mentioned, the annales maximi were primarily a list of portents and prodigies that even Roman historians didn’t find very useful. Perhaps the historians would have found the ‘Best of the Year’ lists that are so ubiquitous today more helpful when writing their own annalistic histories, since those lists are helpfully arranged by topic and often include notes describing the curator’s selection rationale.

I don’t know what algorithm exactly Facebook uses to determine which pictures are selected for a Year in Review, but I suspect that the usual indicators of engagement — likes, comments, clicks — play a significant role. That means that your Year in Review contains only the very best pictures that you’ve posted in the last twelve months.

As many have established, a Facebook profile is an act of curation meant to show off your best self. This can lead to envy — there have been studies showing that people become less happy when they look at their newsfeed and see their Facebook friends living happy, successful lives. (This phenomenon is brilliantly lampooned by the Onion in their article ‘Obnoxious Friend Won’t Stop Attaining Major Life Milestones’.)

But the life you see on Facebook isn’t a representative sample. For every cute picture I’ve posted of my son in the past year — and my Year in Review contains little else — there have been meltdowns, tears, whining. I don’t post about the times when he screams so loudly while we’re waiting in line at Safeway that they open up another register just to get us to leave. If you look at my profile, you mostly see him being adorable. And the pictures featured in my Year in Review are the most adorable of all. It adds a second level of (automatic) selection to my already-curated profile.

The annalistic impulse leads us to create these lists of the superlative (not necessarily representative) moments of 2014, to put those lists out into the world to an indeterminate audience, and then to forget about them. Have you ever looked back at your 2013 Year in Review? For us, as for the Romans, these reviews and ‘Best of the Year’ lists only have use value to the creators, and even that usefulness is ephemeral. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps these lists are the secular version of the Jewish custom of tashlichonly by casting off the events of the previous year can we begin anew.