A “Look Back” At What Exactly?

February 24, 2014
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I don’t know about yScreen Shot 2014-02-23 at 4.17.11 PMour Facebook “Look Back” video, but mine is pretty boring. The video was so curiously curated, uneventful, and unrepresentative of how I perceive my Facebook use that I’m still thinking about it weeks after it was generated. After Facebook released the “Look Back” feature as a gift to Facebook users in celebration of the company’s 10th anniversary, Facebook users responded immediately by rendering and sharing “hundreds of millions” of Look Back videos for their personal accounts, as well as several parodies which utilized the Look Back video codes and conventions to create personalized Facebook narratives for Jesus, Walter White, Rob Ford, Vladimir Putin, “humans”, and many more. In addition to a few touching stories of the pleasure or melancholy comfort the Look Back videos could bring (some of which have since led to changes at Facebook in terms of memorialization practices for deceased Facebook users) there were even more critiques and negative reviews of the Look Back feature and the videos and omissions the algorithms behind the videos produced.

Unlike some of the common complaints launched against the “Look Back” videos, mine showed no evidence of overzealous partying, cringe-worthy status updates, photos of exes who were totally wrong for me (although “my first moments” section was oddly filled with images of other couples who have since called it quits), or even photos of unfortunate haircuts. Although it’s interesting to see some of my most liked posts appear in succession on the screen, it’s equally interesting to note what they say — work related announcements, personal or professional accomplishments, asking for tips about future travel plans – and what they don’t say. Although I’ve enjoyed some highs and endured some lows during my six-year tenure as a Facebook participant, these events don’t show up in my video. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the algorithm is faulty or that I’m not using Facebook “properly”, or that I’m “over sharing”. There’s a reason the automatically generated visualization of my Facebook history looks the way it does. I refuse to believe that it’s because I’ve aged out of knowing how to have a good time, or that nothing monumental has happened to me since I’ve joined Facebook in 2007. Instead, no matter how I choose to edit it, my Facebook anniversary video takes me through a history of the different privacy and impression management strategies I’ve employed over the years, the shifting audiences and contexts for my Facebook content, and how I’ve decided to fragment, multiply, and disperse my online identity across a variety of platforms (even though Mr. Zuckerberg and company would probably like me to stick to just one.)

For example, my “first moments” are directed toward college and close friends only, and represent a Facebook account that was strategically scrubbed (but not completely clean) when I began friending future colleagues and professors. My “most liked posts” reflect an effort to cater to an imagined audience of weak ties, as several of my college and close friends have “dropped out” of Facebook, that I don’t feel the need to perform my social ties and connections (especially with strong ties and family members) in the same way that I did when I was six years younger. All of this in addition to a growing consciousness and attentiveness to the shift in contexts and audiences that came with being on the job market and becoming a junior faculty member. The section of the video titled “photos you’ve shared” is exemplary of what danah boyd has called “social steganography” and represents noticeable changes to the types of images I post to Facebook after joining Instagram.

What’s shown in my “Look Back” video is rather humorously unrepresentative of what it aims to show. The tranquil yet swelling music, and the life cycle narrative which culminates in the camera’s lingering gaze on my current profile picture imply that the images and text displayed should be nostalgic, sentimental, a personal archive of emotionally-significant events. (This life cycle narrative is reminiscent of other Facebook features, social media and locative media apps, and other ad campaigns that emotionalize the ways that our digital technologies grow alongside us — a trope so familiar, yet undeniably touching, that it has even been fictionalized as a highly effective marketing tactic for consumer electronics in shows like Mad Men).

However, what the Facebook video exhibits is not that I somehow eschew an ideal construction of the Facebook user (although this is implied), or that I haven’t accomplished or shared enough personal information on the platform (though this might be true), but it creates an intriguing visualization that offers another window into my social media life on Facebook, and other platforms by comparison. Is it a “success”? I guess that depends on who’s asking and why, but at least for me, the “Look Back” feature serves as a moment to pause and examine my life not as a daughter, significant other, friend, scholar, etc., but as a Facebook participant and to reflect on what the company expects and hopes its users do, and how we’ve negotiated those expectations.


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One Response to “ A “Look Back” At What Exactly? ”

  1. Megan Sapnar Ankerson on March 15, 2014 at 6:06 PM

    It’s totally appropriate to comment on this excellent post 3 weeks after it was posted, right? (I have to admit, one of my social media pet peeves is the speed culture where things become “old news” after a single day or two. Or, we can wait long enough and then nostalgically re-issue… a characteristic of new media that Wendy Chun calls the “eternal ephemeral”). So, in the spirit of the internet’s new slow news culture, I want to give this post a “bump” because I think it’s really smart and I’d love to see more stuff like this appear within media and culture blogs like Antenna.

    There is a lot of work out there that is (often rightfully, in my mind) critical and suspicious of social media re: privacy concerns, surveillance, etc. These companies and their secret algorithms! But there’s not enough work that is critical and reflective of the love-hate relationship we have with social media. (Media studies scholars are so good at this!) Germaine, I love the way you explore both the affective dimensions of Facebook, the affordances of the platform, and your own strategies as a critical user managing your privacy settings and thinking carefully about your own visibility and presentation (i.e. boyd’s “social steganography”).

    I think FB gets a lot of flack for the “river of viral links, quizzes, and badgering apps” (as one article you linked to puts it) as well as the ways targeted ads and sponsored content reach us. But sometimes I suspect we let the humans off the hook too easily. (I’ve been thinking about Doug Engelbart and his HLAM/T conceptual system from the 1960s… he believed humans needed to invest time in understanding their tech– experimenting with things like the “knee input device” as an alternative to the mouse–and that tech and interfaces shouldn’t necessarily be “intuitive” and all about usability. They might instead be things we learn to play, like an instrument.) Thanks for modeling the kind of critical inquiry that I want to see!