On Friday it was announced that Memolane – a service I had never heard of – was closing. I discussed this – including my lack of knowledge about the service – with a couple of followers on Twitter and I promised Mads Kristensen (@vadnu on Twitter) some thoughts about this. They are neither original nor particularly profound, but here goes:
As far as I understand, Memolane was designed to give you access to the history of your social media content – I’m not sure about the exact details of how this worked but as anyone who has used a social media service for a period of time will know you create a lot of material in the form of status and activity updates, interactions with other users, link postings, photos and so on, and the obvious question is: What do we use all of this stuff for?
One obvious answer would be: Nothing. Our activities on social media are primarily part of a flow and what happened a week ago, not to speak of a month or a year ago, is as irrelevant to us as last week’s discussion with a colleague at the coffee machine in the staff room. Social media services could have some interest in all of the stuff as part of their business model – selling more or less well targeted ads – and researchers no doubt could find interesting patterns by diving into the data.
But there is another perspective. In a BBC documentary I heard some time ago, a researcher argued that the default mode for the analogue age was forgetting while the default mode for the digital age was remembering or storing.
Think of holiday snapshots as a case in point. Back when we had analogue cameras, you would carry one or two rolls of film with you on holiday – or in my case: none – and most of you did or saw went unrecorded. The last time I went on a holiday, I came back with this – and what I posted on Flickr was only a selection of the snapshots I took.
The point here is that my marginal cost of taking, storing and posting a foto these days is close to zero. Back in the days of analogue photo the number of frames was limited, developing the film cost money and storing the prints took space. All in all: You thought twice before taking a photo.
This doesn’t mean that the quality of our holiday snapshots was higher in the analogue age: Now you can take five or ten shots and choose the best to archive and post, but a lot of things which went unrecorded earlier is archived and posted these days. And we also know that humans have a tendency to hoard. Discarding stuff can be a tricky experience because we might at some point in time have use for this or that bit of information.
Except that more often than not we don’t.
So, we have a paradox: On the one hand, information about our experiences gets easier and cheaper to collect and archive but on the other hand the marginal value of the individual piece of information declines. In the end, we are still left with massive archives of irrelevant information.
There are ways to access some of the material. I have always liked a service like Flickr because the tagging and collection and set alternatives give some sort of structure to the postings. On the other hand you might ask: What is the use to me, my contacts and the world at large of being able to access and browse my photo archives from, say, 2006? Do I go back to my Delicious archives from the same year? And what about blog posts from 2006? Facebook’s much maligned timeline does have some merit in its attempt to highlight what looks like the most relevant parts of users’ postings – except: How often do you really need to go back and check the history of one of your contacts?
I’m not sure what to make of all of this. My best guess is that the digital age speaks to the hoarder in every one of us and that we tend to over-record everyday activities (no, I’m not thinking of foodgramming in particular here), but that we are still struggling with figuring out if and how to use all of these records. And my best guess is that if my Facebook and Twitter posts which were older than a week suddenly and mysteriously disappeared nobody would miss them. My contacts might miss me if I disappeared in a similar way – at least I like to believe so – but that is a completely different story.