Who Shapes Your Digital Memories?
From how it is stored to how it is storied, the memories you capture online need attention.
In December of 2014, Eric Meyer read a note on his Facebook feed: “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”
Meyer described it this way:
Clip art partiers danced around a picture of my middle daughter, Rebecca, who is dead. Who died this year on her sixth birthday, less than 10 months after we first discovered she had aggressive brain cancer.
Meyer’s blog post about the experience went viral, but if you missed it or had forgotten, it’s worth reading his response again.
His is just one of many dilemmas that comes with our digital social sharing. When we post about moments from our lives, we are not only feeding our family, friends and connections information. We are also adding to an algorithmic narrative of ourselves, one in which code deduces how we are living based on what we post and how friends engage with it.
This merging of physical and machine life is only going to intensify, predicts Internet entrepreneur Alistair Croll, who wrote last year that in 10 years all of us who are connected to the Internet will have a comprehensive timeline. He writes, “This will fundamentally change how we live, love, work, and play. And we’ll look back at the time before our feed started — before Year Zero — as a huge, unknowable black hole.”
I am always skeptical of the universal prediction, but it is likely that algorithms will improve, dramatically, at documenting and notating our lives in more detail, with smarter analysis. Croll asks an important question: “If everything we’ve ever liked and everyone we’ve ever met, becomes part of a documented history, how can we rewrite our own stories?”
Is There A Difference Between A Life Feed And Life Story?
Social media feeds such as on Facebook and Twitter create a chronological archive on a person’s life if the format’s interface and usage remain consistent. This appears to be the plan, at least at Facebook. When Mark Zuckerberg introduced the Timeline interface, which creates a scroll-down chronological ordering of all posts, he stated it will encompass, “all your stories, all your apps and a new way to express who you are.” This point was accentuated by a 10th anniversary commemoration on Facebook called “A Look Back,” which compiled photos and textual posts from each user’s profile, set to music. This is a Life Feed and it can be fun or innocuous or painful.
Social sharing, however, is only part of the picture of a life. In their 2009 book Total Recall, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell predict widespread acceptance of what is commonly called lifelogging — the constant and deep tracking of our every movement into digital information. In Bell and Gemmell’s view, there is no limit to the personal and societal good introduced by “total recall” the result of lifelogging. E-memory, another regular term, will (as the paperback book’s subtitle promises) make us smarter, wiser, healthier, more productive and, potentially, offer “virtual immortality.”
So what is lifelogging, exactly?
Legal and privacy scholar Anita Allen defines lifelogging as, “a comprehensive archive of an individual’s quotidian existence created with the help of pervasive computing technologies.” Wearable technologies, if they could ever meet their potential, could be the emerging tools that lifelogger predictions awaited.
“There are potential problems in this practice,” writes Kieran O’Hara Mischa M. Tuffield and Nigel Shadbolt, “but equally it could be empowering for the individual, and provide a new locus for the construction of an online identity.”
In my own research, I’m interested in that final statement — how the act of lifelogging relates to life identity. Can a Life Feed be enough? First it’s worth noting that these are early days for such considerations. While machinery might one day gather that data, for the time being it is largely created by us and our decision to share details of our lives through social channels such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, reddit and multiple others.
But does this form of communication actually create a life story you would tell? Psychology researcher Michael Bamberg writes that narrating is more than recounting, it is, “something that is life- and live-worthy.” With that definition in mind, could the accumulation of shared moments fit the act of narrating? Perhaps, but capture is only part of the point. As Meyer’s story shows us, context and contemplation matter.
It turns out that if you dive deeply into these questions I’ve been asking, you find even more complications. For example, the classic notion of life narrative, one of an individual recounting a cohesive story from the past, is under heavy scrutiny. As linguistics researcher Ruth Page explains, “there have been calls to pay closer attention to stories that fall outside the dominant traditions of narrative analysis, particularly investing value in the fragmentary and ephemeral stories told in everyday contexts.”
“Fragmentary and ephemeral stories” certainly do fall into the scope of our digital conversations and arguably day-to-day actions. But in those moments when we step back and ask what our lives are about — or when another person wants to understand us — are we willing to let algorithms collect, prioritize and make sense of our identity? If the answer is yes, maybe you’re satisfied with a Life Feed as a Life Story.
Could We Have Two Ways To Tell Our Stories?
But we could each ask this about our social feeds: Did I intend to tell a story at all? The answer to that question may not determine whether we are, in fact, developing a narrative. But intention matters. It might be we have two kinds of life narratives, at least online and maybe in life. We have the narrative that we choose and shape and the narrative that shapes naturally around our actions. According to Dan McAdams, the story that we construct in our own minds is our identity, the crux of who we believe we are. If that’s the case, who is ultimately telling that story is no small question.
Social media use, in itself, does not determine the answer. If I choose, I could use the Facebook prompt, “What’s on your mind” in a way to form a life narrative, and thus a digital identity.
On the other hand, when my Google Fit notes how much I walked and rode my bike, I might never intend for this to be part of my narrative. It is simply data to help me set goals for moving more. If I share this with my friends, thus social lifelogging, I have added to my algorithmic narrative, perhaps without considering that fact.
Social lifelogging, in fact, is a form that content creators might be choosing for very specific, non-narrative purposes. They are tiny snapshots, textual, audial, visual “selfies,” watermarks placed only in relation to a time but not necessarily in relation to each other. They could be better likened to texts sent over mobile phones — opportunities to connect for connection sake. They may also be self-performance in seeking out everything from praise to assistance. But they should not be assumed to be purposeful life narrative telling.
This is why The History Project, as a researcher, interests me. It was designed as a way to hone everyday experiences down to those moments that deeply reflect the narrative the subject intends, whether that subject is us or another person.
A relevant question at this point might be: Does this question of who is telling the story actually matter to the social media user? In fact it might, researchers say. Narrative, as it is classically conceived, has been demonstrated to offer a powerful effect for both creator and consumer. Learning how to create classic narratives — by crafting causal relationships and forming narrative arcs is a critical aid in the development of a coherent emotional life and may include other physical and psychological benefits, regardless of them being written or spoken. The construction that seems most effective is one that includes a story goal, namely putting the events in a logical narrative order. Telling both your own and close family stories has these characteristics.
As Julie Beck put it in The Atlantic, “Storytelling, then — fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons — is a way of making sense of the world around us.”
It works on the receiving end too. Narrative engagement, that feeling of being moved by a story to another place and time, explains the enjoyment of stories and is known to have an effect on beliefs and attitudes. In a sea of opinion, life stories are vessels of deeper understanding.
It seems quite clear that something meaningful happened on all sides in the case of Eric Meyer’s Facebook feed. The algorithm got the event right, but the context was heartbreakingly wrong. How social media evolves is not easy to predict. What we do know is that unless you choose to eschew digital life altogether, your input will lead to output that says something about you…no matter where you take that conversation.
That is why I think Meyer is more than just a sad story. He’s an example to follow. He used the same tools that told his story to tell it better, to add the human elements that algorithms can not. What might help those of us who want to be part of a broader social conversation is to become better curators of our own experiences.
Michael Humphrey is a Ph.D. student at Colorado State University and a contributor at Forbes.com.