Last week, as part of their 10-year anniversary, Facebook released a tool that allows users to create (and later edit) movies based upon their FB usage. The “Look Back” videos offer “an experience that compiles your highlights since joining Facebook.” For a couple of days, my feed (and I suspect, most people’s) filled with “looks back” from a variety of friends, followed by the inevitable wave of parodies (Walter White, Darth Vader, et al.).
Like many of my friends, I went ahead and let FB sort through my photos and updates in an effort to set my “highlights” to music, but I didn’t end up sharing the results. This week in my DH course, we’re talking about archives, so I’ve been reading around somewhat alert to discussions of archiving, and I ended up thinking a bit about my “Look Back” and what it had to tell me about my relationship with FB as an archive of my life. I didn’t end up sharing my movie because I didn’t feel like it was particularly representative–while it did manage to hit on a couple of significant events (such as the fact that I bought a house), most of the updates and images included were pretty random. And so I’ve been thinking on why that was.
One obvious reason is that I don’t share as much of my life with FB as others do, and I say that without judgment. As FB itself notes, the content of the movie “depend[s] on how long you’ve been on Facebook and how much you’ve shared.” While I’ve been there for 6 or 7 of its 10 years, it would be an understatement to say that there are gaps in my self-presentation, the same gaps that show up in my movie. So on the one hand, I have no one to blame but myself–I can hardly be critical of a presentation when I’ve withheld the raw materials that it might draw on. And I don’t mean here to be critical of those who do share much more–I’m as fond as anyone of being able to keep up with my friends’ lives this way. But it was interesting to me just how much my Look Back ended up referencing my own attitudes toward sharing.
One of the texts we’re looking at this week is Johanna Drucker’s “The Book as Call and Conditional Texts.” It’s a compelling meditation on how we understand books, and how contemporary technologies might shift that understanding. Among other things, Drucker notes
The future book, which is already here, not just imagined but implemented in various ways in the configurable and mutable pages of the web, will be fluid, a conditional configuration based on a call to the vast repositories of knowledge, images, interpretation, and interactive platforms.
Of course, I read this article having already thought about the Look Back, and thus found echoes of it reverberating throughout. The “pages” of the Amazon website (or really, any e-commerce site) provide another fine example of this conditional configuration, a structured query whose contingent nature is disguised by “stable” terms like site and page. Of course the Look Back is a conditional text, but faced with mine, I was struck by how its conditions are really Facebook’s. I assume that its selection of images and updates is guided by the internal currency of shares and likes, FB’s way of calculating relative life-importance. And of course, the movies are shared on FB, themselves subject to the same economy that generated them.
I was especially taken with this passage from Drucker:
If ever the principles of a Heraclitan flux were embodied in the very ontology/phenomenology of an artifact, it is here, now, in the fleeting immediacies through which a document composes itself for our eyes only and for an instant’s disregard and then vanishes. Siblings and cousins and shades of resemblance may reassemble, so like the original we mistake them, momentarily, for that earlier temporary object brought into being, but then, with regret, relief, and other realization of the subtle but significant difference between the initial document and this “new” one, we realize the perils of our connection to “refresh rates.” No corpses remain.
I know that this is going to seem a little dark, but maybe the biggest absence in my Look Back was death itself. Among the life events that didn’t show up were the losses of my father and grandparents, and my surgery in 2011, perhaps the closest that I myself have come to death, at least to my knowledge. I have only really shared those things in very limited ways over social media, but collectively they represent a significant chunk of my life taken up with loss, depression, and grief. Even if I were better at sharing and dispelling those feelings, in many ways, my presence on FB was an intentional hedge against that time. If I couldn’t read or write academic prose (and there was a long time there where I couldn’t), at least I could toss up a link or a snarky observation about something or other. Nothing remains very long, and maybe for a while that’s what I needed.
Maybe what I saw in my Look Back, then, was a bearable lightness, or what passed for such at the time. If there’s something that Drucker’s discussion of conditional texts left me with, it was that, despite FB’s desire that I “become internally colonized by the form and formats of these reconfiguring texts,” something different happened. It produced just a little bit more distance between my own conditions and those that FB suggested on my behalf. That’s all.