Posted on 29 March 2012
What if you could get an email everyday telling you what your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were thinking, where they went, and what they saw on this exact day in past? With social networks and new tools, we may be creating that future.
I’m not being original to observe that the next great front in social media is going to be finding a way to meaningful archive all the information being shared on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs every day. Before Facebook unrolled its Timeline feature (which lets you visit your status updates and photos from years past), it was described as “the single biggest lost opportunity in storytelling”.
My social studies and history classes growing up were largely coloured by reading excerpts from diary entries of “regular people” at various points, in order to give you a flavor for the time. The things they were recording may have seemed frivolous at the time (reading and writing have at various points been considered time-wasters), but centuries on it’s fascinating– and telling– to learn what was on people’s minds on a day-to-day basis. Today, we are engaging in the frivolous activity of Tweeting and checking in on Foursquare on a daily basis– but who knows how valuable this may be to future generations, if only they can parse the huge amount of data being generated.
Fortunately, we can already get a peek at what that might look like. There are a number of services out there for archiving your data, but I have to say my personal favourite is Timehop. Born of an earlier service called “Foursquare and Seven Years Ago”, Timehop offers a very simple proposition: it will scrape your data from Twitter, Foursquare, and Facebook and send you a daily email telling you what you were doing a year ago. For example, here’s part of mine from this morning:
Not a huge deal, by any means. Other days I’ve been reminded of more significant events, like a week ago when my memory was jogged about the visit of Rick Mercer to UNBC, which I covered for Daybreak. Or when I get emails reminding me about past road trips. Those are fun, but so are these banal ones, because it’s the banal things that you’re most likely to forget about. I was greeted by THE EXACT SAME FERRET doing the EXACT SAME THING this morning, but I would have never remembered him doing it a year ago without this email. Today it was fun. If it expands, and in twenty years I get an email from twenty years ago, this will remind me of what it was like to be greeted by a loved pet two decades earlier. How will that feel?
Even more so, imagine if we can harness this sort of a service for future generations. I barely new either of my grandfathers. What if I could get a daily email telling me where they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking, on this exact day in history? It would be a level of understanding about my ancestors that I don’t think has ever really existed– knowing the banalities of their life, which are ultimately the most important things. It even has a name: ambient intimacy. As Leisa Reichelt, who I believe coined the term, writes:
“It helps us get to know people who would otherwise be just acquaintances. It makes us feel closer to people we care for but in whose lives we’re not able to participate as closely as we’d like.
Knowing these details creates intimacy. (It also saves a lot of time when you finally do get to catchup with these people in real life!) It’s not so much about meaning, it’s just about being in touch. “
Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Foursquare, blogs– they all offer ambient intimacy with people in the present. Things like Timehop– it offers something new. Ambient intimacy with your past self, at the moment, and perhaps one day ambient intimacy with previous generations. There are implications to this. Chief among them is, if we value this opportunity, there needs to be real discussion about how to preserve the systems all this information is built on (it would be a big blow if Facebook were to fold and delete all that data, for example). Questions of how and if we should hand off data keys to future generations, and who we give them to (trained historians? Our direct descendants?) And even the question of whether this is healthy. Katrina Onstad writing in the Globe and Mail skewered the movie “The Social Network” thusly:
“The new film ‘The Social Network’ opens with a portentous subtitle: “Harvard University. Fall 2003.” Ah, two millenia thrice! Allow me to light this pipe while I spin the a yarn of yesteryear.”
She continues, more seriously:
“Social networking spurs nostalgia because it’s changed our relationship to the past, bringing it closer and processing it faster. It’s now possible to find online retrospectives that pensively assess Lady Gaga’s ‘early’ looks. Lady Gaga’s first album was released in 2008.”
So while I’m trying to justify the naval-gazing aspect of social networks as an important step in archiving human history, I might just be engaging in more naval gazing by mythologizing the recent past– my own recent past. Ultimately, the question comes down to: what aspects of the human experience have value outside of simply happening? What’s worth sharing with others, and what’s worth remembering one, two, twenty, or one hundred years from now?
It’s not a question likely to be answered in the near future. But a year from now, I’ll get an email reminding me I asked the question. We’ll see what I say then.
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