Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dear Facebook Diary

Earlier this year in March, Facebook launched the On This Day feature that shows a user his or her Facebook content from that same day from years past. Status updates, tagged photos, wall posts from friends, funny drawings, meme videos you commented on, etc. all from years gone by are presented in reverse chronological order for your nostalgic perusal.

You might have noticed this feature via the notifications Facebooks provides to the memories you have waiting to see. If not, you can find the feature is found on your Facebook homepage under the Apps section on the left or by going directly to your On This Day page after logging in.

Facebook only enables one to view the One This Day content one day at a time. I can see the business reasoning behind this decision, as it keeps people (like me) clicking back daily. Also it is more powerful to view past content on the anniversary of its posting than during a binge reminiscence. Still, if one really wants this to take a LONG trip down memory lane they could just pour through their activity log.

The content on one's On This Day page is only available to the user in this format (friends could still access any content you've given them access to via it's original historic placement. But Facebook has a Share button that enables one to repost with or without new commentary. I know I'm not the only one who is using this feature, as I'm seeing this content appearing in my feed with increasing frequency.

Lest we be reminded of anything too painful, Facebook provides settings for us to exclude posts from specific days or people. As always, Facebook also make sit easy to delete any old items one deems too painful or too boring to linger on. (If only Facebook could excise unpleasant memories and people so deftly and dispassionately.)

I was one of the first Facebook users when they opened up to non-students, so I've used it for many years. As an addicted user for most of this time, I consequently have a LOT of prior posts.

Prior to the launch of this feature, however, other than looking at my past photos (as this is how I do my family photo albums now), I have almost never reviewed any of my prior Facebook content. As with my daily conversations offline and on, my words and images passed into the ether never really to be heard from again.

That is until Facebook launched this feature. Since they launched it, I have checked it every day. In a way that I never conceived of before this, it provides a chronicle of my life and times. Posted are my accomplishments and losses, my thoughts on politics and pop culture, new friendships (but not unfriendings), and funny things and family memories. There are photos, videos, links, notes, and rantings by me or others that I reposted. At no time during these years did I think I was saving something for prosperity or archiving my lifestreaming.

Over the years, I have thought of keeping a journal (man's term for diary) and had a few haphazard efforts using Word docs, emails and even a diary mobile app. In the end, these efforts were all quickly abandoned as I ultimately found that I didn't want to rehash my daily events and feelings. I found writing such autobiographical accounts to not only be a chore, but more importantly it dredged up stuff that I was probably best moving past quickly. I have never wanted to reread any of my past journal entries for similar reasons.

Perhaps it was my format and approach to diarying that I felt was de rigueur that provided an uninspiring and restrictive structure. I probably got my sense of what a diary should contain from movies and TV, as in "Dear Diary: Today, I did the following...".

Yet Facebook posts don't have any such constraints and can flow more organically. My posts arise spontaneously based on my responses to events in my life and content I encounter daily. So I might post about a big event - getting an award or milestone anniversary - but also about a new movie or cool website. I tend not to post about the deeply negative and personal parts of my life as I'm private that way. This probably explains why my experience of the On This Day feature is much more positive than others have written about. (See such accounts in The Debrief, TechCrunch, and Globe and Mail. My deeply personal thoughts and internal life are not represented on Facebook as they were in when I did proper diarying, but it was this type of content that was too painful - and dull - to document and relive, so I'm okay with it not be present in my Facebook history.

In the end, what I have are vast and eclectic reflections on almost all the substrate of my life.  The diversity of topics of these posting provide a good reflection of the diversity of things in my life. I want to see and be reminded of these things.

So for me Facebook is an easy to keep journal (diary) kept in a less restrictive and more fun manner.

But that's not what makes it really something different. What makes Facebook posts unlike any sort of diary is that posts are read and commented upon by others. Previously diaries only became social media when one's pesky sibling found it and mockingly read aloud the embarrassing bits.

The comments by friends, family, even acquaintances provides the social dimension that is central to almost everyone's life. Hermits aside, we have always shared our experiences and thoughts on our life and times with others, but this was often not documented (especially since letter writing died out). Our old-style diaries might record social interactions - even conversations - with others, but it was always from our own perspective and using our own words. But Facebook in all its seldom editted glory gives people a forum for commentary on our lives. Now these interactions with the many others in our lives are recorded too. (And again, this is a source of contention with some users of this feature.)

Since this feature launched I have rarely missed accessing it, sometimes logging into Facebook just to access this. I have also started posting things mostly for their future historic value to me. My posting volume has gone up considerably as a result. I am worried that I am TMIing my friends.

With this future history posts, I have considered making them private. However, I like the social interactions with friends that my postings solicit, so I have left them open. Still, it is rather sad to post something and then get zero responses or even a minimal-effort required "Like".

I love this feature so much that it leads to a big concern. My prior diaries were completely mine. Even my forays into digital diarying were in non-proprietary formats that could be easily read by other software. But now my diary is owned - at least in part - by a third party. Facebook, I learned in writing this post, does allow one to download the complete records of one's account, but I can't imagine how any other software would be able to present it in a meaningful or usable manner (let me know if there is). 

I'm happy to stay with Facebook as I find it an overall great service with an unbeatable price. But as more and more of my life is comprised within Facebook and archived by them too, I worry about what happens when Facebook is no longer around or still offering this type of service. Companies don't last forever, but I want my memories to.

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