Facebook and the Design of Memory

Facebook's $100 billion IPO is just peeking at us over the horizon, inspiring floods of cheap ink and cheaper pixels.  A recent Huffington Post article recounted the key stats from Zuck and the gang's SEC filing: 845 million members; 483 million daily users; profit of roughly $1 billion on revenues of $3.7 billion.  Unlike competitors like FriendsterMySpace and Google Plus, Facebook seems to have found the hidden wardrobe into our minds, a backdoor to ubiquity.  These networks thrive on pervasiveness, and Facebook has won the all-important popularity contest.  

However, there are chinks in the hoodie.  Facebook has reached 60% market penetration in the U.S. and the U.K., a saturation level that may prove difficult surmount.  China, a tempting new market, is closed to them unless they submit to draconian censorship laws.  Advertising comprises 85% of company revenues, which is likely to fall as third-party sites use the Facebook Platform to allow users to interact with their content directly.  Zuckerberg's autocratic style and majority of voting shares has raised questions about corporate governance, especially after his questionable recent purchase of revenue-less Instagram for $1 billion.  And, the existential question: other than its size, what is to prevent Facebook from becoming MySpace once something shinier and faster comes along?

Some of the comment sections for these articles scroll on endlessly, a cross-section of complaint and bluster, wondering at Facebook's omniscience while simultaneously submitting to it.  I mean, after all, what does Facebook make exactly?  What does it all mean?  The Atlantic's Stephen Marche recently wrestled with these philosophical issues, writing:

"What Facebook has revealed about human nature—and this is not a minor revelation—is that a connection is not the same thing as a bond, and that instant and total connection is no salvation, no ticket to a happier, better world or a more liberated version of humanity. Solitude used to be good for self-reflection and self-reinvention. But now we are left thinking about who we are all the time, without ever really thinking about who we are. Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect."

The Zuck.

Sure, connection is not the same as a bond -- the title of Marche's article, Is Facebook Making us Lonely?, illustrates this very point.  Many have made much of Facebook's ability to both alienate while simultaneously building an echo chamber of similarity around us, magnifying and repeating our own opinions.  But these arguments miss the point.  Of course we are friends with our siblings, childhood buddies, and co-workers on Facebook -- we would be friends with these people anyway, social network or no.  Facebook's genius is not in reinforcing strong connections -- why in the world would I post something on my girlfriend's wall when I could just call her up and tell her -- but in creating a web of weak, tenuous connections, with old classmates, professional acquaintances, and distant cousins.  Facebook has been great for me in precisely this way, allowing to me network for freelance jobs, disseminate my portfolio, and keep in touch with folks from previous phases of my life.  

Marche's larger point, about disconnecting from technology, being alone, forgetting, is more cogent, especially as Facebook introduces its newest product, Timeline.  Zuckerberg is redesigning our memory, bit by pixellated bit, into a machine that never forgets.  Facebook doesn't forget what you had for lunch last week.  Or a year ago.  It knows the cat video you liked three months back.  It remembers every embarrassing drunken weekend.  Every past lover.  Every dead relative.  It remembers everything, indiscriminately, hosing out the corners of your psyche and blasting them across the vast landscape of the internet, subject only to the durability of a few server farms and Mark Zuckerberg's imagination.  

People, confused or perhaps unaware of this looming permanence, lulled into complacency by the limited nature of the scroll on their walls, treat Facebook like an on-going conversation, not the text of their autobiography.  Timeline changes this, making every major life event instantly accessible, floating in a monumental sea of meaningless comments, likes, and photos of lunches, sunsets, flash-burnt faces in nameless bars.  The promotional video for Timeline presents the fictional life of a nice young man, Andy, as he is born, dives into a pool as a child, graduates from somewhere, meets a girl, gets married, has kids, and so forth.  Interestingly, it skips through all of the meaningless status updates in between, boiling his life down to a handful of significant events.  And, most notably, it fails to bring his Timeline to its logical conclusion: when does Andy die?

I joined Facebook almost four years ago, but Andy's story brings into question those that have started much earlier in their lives.  Friends of mine who have gotten married and had children are now posting pictures of their babies, from birth, filling in the Timeline without their children's consent.  Most people consider posting a photo on Facebook much as they would consider sharing a photo album with their family, or putting a snapshot on the bulletin board in the break room at work.  But it's vastly different.  For starters, a corporation owns that image of your child.  Second, it exists on the internet in a timeless way that cannot be undone.  Cached pages, archives, tagging -- the labyrinthine ecosystem of Facebook makes it nearly impossible to remove content, merely un-tag it, disassociating without deleting.  

Kids I grew up with have younger siblings who have been on Facebook since they were thirteen -- the allowable lower age limit.  The things they post are unimaginable to me, but they have grown up and matured in an environment of endless, open sharing, where a tweet, a text, or a wall post are mere extensions of their private thoughts.  I fear for them at forty.  They have grown up in the midst of an unprecedented social experiment, one that will trap them in an eternal present, a never-ending high school yearbook, unable to shed former selves.  Re-invention is a necessary tool of growing up -- we go to high school, we change through college, or jobs, or re-locations, each an opportunity for a fresh start.  Now each previous iteration is trapped in amber, backlit with an LCD glow.  

I have other friends who have been divorced, which has led them to a long and painful obscuring of their digital past, simultaneously re-living happy moments while laboring to erase them.  Destroying painful memories were once a physical acts; burning photographs, tearing up letters, scratching names out of the address book.  Digitally preserved, the past has become un-erasable, permanently archived, searchable, downloadable, viewable but no longer touchable.

Unfortunately, I have also known people on Facebook who have passed away, and their pages remain, a digital cemetery.  Some pages have been deleted.  Others have been maintained by family as a memorial, leading to the disconcerting ghost status update scrolling through my feed, reminding me of birthdays that won't be celebrated or anniversaries of their passing.  A picture shows on the left-hand side of the text, forever frozen at half-mast.  Some estimate as many as one million Facebook users pass away each year, to be registered with "memorial accounts" or paused in a vacuous internet eternity, ever-present and unchanging.

A heartbreaking story on This American Life on the tenth anniversary of September 11th recounted the efforts of Marian Fontana to move on after she lost her husband in the towers.  She became president of the 9/11 Widows and Victims' Family Association, until she had to resign because the morbid celebrity had become too much, preventing her from moving on, from forgetting.  If Facebook had existed on that terrible day, we would have a great iceberg of calcified grief sitting in our collective conscious, hardening, sharpening, rubbing us raw.

Zuckerberg has made an epic bet that we, as people, want to write our autobiographies and present them publicly, un-edited, in real time.  But sometimes we need to forget.  We need to move on.  We need to consign certain episodes to the weedy sandlots in the back of our minds and let the hazy filter of memory sweeten things up, tone them down, roll over the edges and round the corners, make our lives livable again.  Facebook records the beginning and happy middle of our lives, swaddling the painful end in a great mass of insignificance -- diluting us, washing us away, dissolving us in the hopes of making us more concentrated.