Social media platforms hold vast amounts of biographical data about our lives. They repackage our past content as ‘memories’ and deliver them back to us. But how does that change the way we remember?
Drawing on original qualitative research as well as industry documents and reports, this book critically explores the process behind this new form of memory making. In asking how social media are beginning to change the way we remember, it will be essential reading for scholars and students who are interested in understanding the algorithmically defined spaces of our lives.
Social media profiles inevitably leave traces of a life being lived. These biographical data trails are a tempting resource for ‘platform capitalism’ (Langley & Leyshon, 2017; Srnicek, 2017). As they have integrated themselves deeply into everyday routines and interactions, social media have captured a wealth of biographical information about their users. The production and maintenance of profiles has led to the recording and sharing of detailed documentary impressions. This accumulation of the day-to-day has led to the conditions in which prior content can be readily repurposed to suit the rapid circulations of social media. Moving beyond their initial remit as communication and networking platforms, social media have expanded to become memory devices. As people’s lives are captured, social media platforms continue to seek out ways to recirculate these traces and to render them meaningful for the individual user. The archive is vast, and so automated approaches to memory making have been deployed in order to resurface this past content, selecting what should be visible and rendering it manageable. It is here that this book makes an intervention – this is a book about algorithmic memory making within social media. What is particularly important, as we will show, are the ways that social media’s automated systems are actively sorting the past on behalf of the user.
In a short fragment composed around 1932, a piece that went unpublished in his lifetime, Walter Benjamin wrote of the ‘excavation’ of memories. Memories, the fragment suggests, are something to be actively mined from the continually piling remnants of everyday life.
Inevitably, classification processes are powerful within any type of archive. The way content is classified shapes how documents are interpreted and, crucially, how they are retrieved. If we approach social media as a form of archive, then we can begin to see how the ordering process of classification and sorting that occur within these media may be powerful for how people engage with their past content and how individual biographies are made accessible. As we will explore, the ordering of the archive is crucial for understanding its functioning and what can be pulled from its vast stores.
The types of archives that are used to document life are powerful in their presence and outcomes. For some it has been placed at the centre of modern power formations. Derrida (1996: 4 n1) famously argued that, ‘there is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation.’
If we treat social media as a population of people effectively participating within a large archival structure, then social media bring the politics of the archive to the centre of everyday life and social interaction (see Beer, 2013). Derrida’s point is that the structures of the archive afford its uses and what can then be said with it or retrieved from it. He argues that ‘the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future’ (Derrida, 1996: 17; original emphases).
Although we are talking about the automated production of memory in this book, these systems are still anchored by classification systems that open them up to a much longer held and well-established, as Foucault (2002) put it, order of things. It is also important to note that ‘The Taxonomy of Memory Themes’ discussed in Chapter Two served as the ‘ground truth’ (Amoore, 2020), so to speak, for the development of Facebook Memories. Established prior to its development, the memory classifications generated by Facebook’s research studies were fed into the design of Facebook’s current throwback feature. This was effectively a moment in which the formalization of a computational problem occurred and where there was an attempt to render the indeterminable and contingent into something calculable (see Fazi, 2018). Once this taxonomy of memories was in place, it provided the ranking algorithms with a clear-cut computational problem to ‘solve’ and optimize: what to surface, to whom and when. In other words, once there was a system in place for classifying memories within the taxonomy, the system had to then decide which memory, from all these many classified memories, should be targeted at the intended recipient and when they should receive it. Once the classificatory system is active within this social media archive, the focus then has to shift to retrieval and to the way in which this retrieval is instantiated in processes of ranking. Bringing memories to the surface requires, in this logic, a system by which they can be ranked – memories ranked at a certain level are the ones that then become visible.
The kind of automatic production and targeting of memories that we have described in the previous chapters is still relatively new. Yet it is already widespread and deeply embedded in how people relate to their past through social media content. As we have shown, processes of classification and ranking are central to how people encounter past social media content as memories. What this will mean for collective and individual memory will take some time to fully understand. However, in this chapter we would like to turn to a project that was recently completed by the first-named author in order to begin to think through and explore what these changes might mean, examining how people might come to respond and react to these packaged and targeted memories. The previous chapters showcase how the memorable is partitioned and promoted. In this chapter, we will reflect more directly on the reception of the classified and ranked memories with which users are presented. Given the scope of the issues, this is not a complete endeavour, but it begins to give glimpses into the variegated reception of automatically sorted memories that might then be pursued further. It will indicate the types of direction that memory making may be taking in the context of social media and mobile devices. In short, this chapter begins to explore something that is well-established but little understood as of yet. As discussed in Chapter One, we may know some of what happens when digital memories or mediated memories become integrated, but this particular chapter is about how people react to targeted memories.
Even something as intimate and personal as memory cannot escape the reach of social media and their datafied and circulatory logic. In this book we have explored the underlying processes that enable the selection and targeting of past content in the form of repackaged ‘memories’. Here we have highlighted the way that classification and ranking operate together to enable memories to resurface on social media throwback features. Through the combination of classification and ranking, the automated production and delivery of so-called ‘memories’ means that social media users do not need to dig; they are not excavating, as Walter Benjamin suggested, but instead that excavation is being done on their behalf. Benjamin noted that memories were always a way of mediating the masses of past experiences; this has not changed. These automated systems of social media remediate those memories through the classificatory systems that group them and then prioritize them, making them visible or invisible to us, and shaping how individuals and groups participate in those memories. Because, as Benjamin pointed out, memories have always been a mediation of the past, they can readily be reworked by these automated systems. As we have seen though, one problem with the automatic production of memory is authenticity. It is the act of producing memories that lends them authenticity; if that work becomes automated then potential tensions emerge around the legitimacy of that memory.
‘The promise of automation’, writes Mark Andrejevic (2020: 13), ‘is to encode the social so that it can be offloaded onto machines.’