An ever increasing amount of our life is being stored in the cloud these days. Our emails, photos, videos are the most prominent examples. But there is also our health data, our running habits, the places we visit. With every new day, there is a service that provides us with the possibility to upload a new part of us into the network.
This is a logical development that correlates heavily with our technological capabilities. We won’t stop it, nor should we. But we should make sure that not the ones who control technology, but we as a society find means and ways how those capabilities affect us. It is about shaping how we want this to happen, not about an attempt to stop it.
What stroke me most in the recent weeks and month is how our way to remember things is being restructured. One of my friends, Boris, tweeted this not too long ago:
Flickr, your Android app is utter garbage. Not only did it fail to post, it did not save the photo. An important moment, now lost forever.
The moment is not completely lost, it will be just much harder to remember it. It happened, it is saved in our – or in this case in Boris’ memory. By creating more tangible documentations – photos, videos, etc. – we can help ourselves trigger the memory of those by browsing through the our owns Flickr stream.
This reminds me of how my teachers used to complain about the increasing use of calculators in math class. Their argument, which we as students used to ignore, was that our ability to calculate even the simplest problems ‘in our head’ was fading because of that. They have been right. Not that the ability is lost forever, but calculators are now ubiquitously available and it is so much easier to just ask them.
Today, we rely on social networks, location based services, photo sharing sites to be our memory. It doesn’t matter, if we are doing it purposefully or not. By sharing an ever increasing amount with the network, we create a copy of our past-self.
But there is a problem with that.
Those traces of ourselves are an incomplete version of us. Those bits & pieces that we share with the network are only fragments of us. They are most likely more significant then others – otherwise we would not experience the need to document them –, but overall they are very much incomplete versions of what we experience and what our brain documents.
Thing is, those incomplete, networked versions of ourselves are shaping our memory. Because it is so easy to access those fragments of memories, we tend to be influenced only by the things that are documented.
Let me give you an example.
Recently I started using 4sq7years ago. It’s a cute, little service that will send you each morning an email with the check-ins you did on the same day a year ago. I find it very, very charming. It’s a small time-machine for your head. Our mind doesn’t function according to calendars, we would never remember what happened exactly a year ago without getting a specific trigger. Which happens in this case too. I don’t only get a memory of the location at which I checked-in, I also try to remember what else happened on that they. Unless I can actually look it up in one of the networks.
Memory based on Social Objects
Our social interaction online is mostly based around social objects. Photos, Videos, updates on Facebook, tweets. They are all social objects around which we can aggregate different behaviors.
While we already share an tremendous amount of those objects, there are many data streams to still tap into.
But lets step back a bit and take a closer look of how we collect and share data about ourselves.
The current state of the Internet and of social networks taught us of how to share and being social on the network. This is not a small step and we already share an incredible amount about ourselves. But there is more. A lot more.
Most of the networks and services that we use these days are interested in very specific data. Foursquare is interested where and with whom we hang out, GetGlue is interested in what we are watching, Runekeeper is interested in tracking our exercises, etc. Quantifying ourself is a big trend these days and there are many ways to do it.
A problem with which many of those services struggle is that they seem not to provide users with enough value to actually have a significant amount of people using them. This only becomes more obvious the more services a user tries to use. I really wanted to use Foodspotting, but beside Foursquare it just didn’t stand a chance.
The core of the problem is not that those services can’t create something meaningful around the social objects that we share with them, but that they require us to invest to much time into them.
Inputing the data is key problem here.
That’s why daytum never took of, for example. Many of you probably know of Nick Feltron. The man behind the feltron reports followed his passion of tracking everything and wanted to provide others with the ability to do so. Daytum was an interesting experiment that tried to provide a framework in which people can track more of their own behavior. I tried many times to track my eating, drinking, etc. behaviors. I never managed to go for longer then a week. Why? Because I started spending too much time on just tracking information about myself.
Now, Facebook is very smart about this. I’m actually superbly intimidated by their ability to figure out how to get people to share more on the platform.
Lets look an one specific example.
When Facebook re-think their approach to check-ins many assumed that Foursquare one the battle of location sharing information. For me, it was obvious that Facebook just figured out that the check-in process as we commonly know it today just doesn’t scale for the mainstream user. They saw that the solution they had in place just wasn’t creating enough motivation for users to actually reveal their location to their network through Facebook.
Their new solution was more simple and elegant. First, it allows one user to check-in their friends into a location. This decreases the overall amount of time the group needs to invest into the announcement of its location. Foursquare also employs a competitive – game layer – approach to encourage its users to reveal information. While this can function as a motivator, it also creates one very specific behavior: as soon as a Foursquare users enters a specific location, they one to be the first ones to check-in. This creates a social awkwardness. Facebook acts differently. There is no rush for the check-in. It facilitates upon common social behaviors in a group. People take a look at their Facebook stream in a quite moment or when somebody else is talking. In those moments the process of the check-in is less intrusive onto the user and onto the group itself.
It is also possible to attach a location to other social objects like photos or videos. This way users can enrich their content at a later point, giving it context and making it more social.
Facebook is very good in finding the right mechanics that will make it easier to share. Very, very good.
But they also realized that there is a limit to what a user is willing to input manually. There is a limit how much effort we want to put in to creating a comprehensive activity stream for ourselves.
That’s where aggregation becomes so important.
Sometimes, when a song is really, really good, we will share them with our social networks. But most of the time, we just listen to music without revealing what we are listening. There are already services that will aggregate our musical taste. Last.fm, Pandora, rdio.
Those services are interested in understanding the musical taste of their users better, to increase provide a better service by creating a better database and a suggestion engine that doesn’t feel all that random. They lack certain social components, because it is hard to create a lot social behavior around music.
That’s where Facebook comes into the picture.
With their newest changes, they allow aggregation of many, many services. This time, they focused on music, but the technological underlining of the platform allows basically every platform to plug-in Facebook’s social power into the service. In exchange, Facebook wants to learn what their users are listening to on those music services. Automatically.
Suddenly, the largest social networks has a gigantic source of data coming in. Suddenly, they solved a big problem of social music recommendation or at least they attempt to. Facebook learns about their users and those services get new signups and more satisfied users who find new music without investing too much time in finding it. Both sides profit from this exchange of data immensely.
This is and will be extended into different areas of what we consume on various sites and services. It’s an easy way to aggregate many and more of our activities. It is Facebook’s attempt to replicate us into a database.
Back to memory
Coming back to the example with the calculator. Now, we not only can’t do math in our head, suddenly we do not need to remember many of the things that we have been doing, because it is easy to access them on Facebook.
That’s where Mr. Feltron, the man who already tried to create a services that was supposed to help us aggregate everything about ourselves, comes in. He was hired by Facebook to redesign our profile pages in a way that makes into a diary of ourselves. Only this time, it’s not a diary hidden under our mattress, it is a diary that is saved on the servers of a corporation, that is accessible by our friends and most importantly one that creates a very distorted memory of our activities.
The more we will rely on looking up those traceable moments of ourselves on Facebook, the more the moments that haven’t been recorded, check-in or aggregated will fade into the background.
Just try to remember the moments of your last trip. Do you mostly remember those which you caught on camera? I bet, the answer is ‘yes’.
Now, I do not know what the explicit effect of that will be, nor do I want to frame it in a context of good vs. evil. Time will tell. What I do think, tho, is that we really need to think strong and hard of how we want to remember ourselves, our friends and our environment. Especially, if we are giving one corporation in California the power of not only aggregating our life (and through that our memories), but also to curate them.
Just ask yourself: what will be the impact of 800 Million people suddenly changing how they remember themselves and their environment?