Facebook’s “Photo Memories” and filter failure

If you’ve scanned your friends’ photo albums on Facebook recently, you may have noticed a new feature on the right sidebar labeled “Photo Memories.”  This raises an important issue that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while: our collective digital memory.  It’s the subject of a fairly new book titled Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age.

I’ve not yet read the book, but I listened to a talk by the author, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, at Harvard’s Berkman Center, as well as his conversation with Farhad Manjoo of Slate on Bloggingheads TV.  (While the Berkman talk is a more thorough discussion of his ideas, in some ways the Bloggingheads talk is clearer and more illuminating.)

Here’s how Berkman describes the book:

DELETE argues that in our quest for perfect digital memories where we can store everything from recipes and family photographs to work emails and personal information, we’ve put ourselves in danger of losing a very human quality—the ability and privilege of forgetting. Our digital memories have become double-edged swords—we expect people to “remember” information that is stored in their computers, yet we also may find ourselves wishing to “forget” inappropriate pictures and mis-addressed emails. And, as Mayer-Schönberger demonstrates, it is becoming harder and harder to “forget” these things as digital media becomes more accessible and portable and the lines of ownership blur (see the recent Facebook controversy over changes to their user agreement).

Mayer-Schönberger examines the technology that’s facilitating the end of forgetting—digitization, cheap storage and easy retrieval, global access, and increasingly powerful software—and proposes an ingeniously simple solution: expiration dates on information.

The cataloging of our lives online is a relatively new phenomenon, so we haven’t had much time to consider its impact.  But it’s going to be interesting.  Here’s Facebook VP Christopher Cox explaining the potential impact of Facebook Places:

Too many of our human stories are still collecting dust on the shelves of our collections at home…Those stories are going to be pinned to a physical location so that maybe one day in 20 years our children will go to Ocean Beach in San Francisco, and their little magical thing will start to vibrate and say, ‘This is where your parents first kissed.’

Google CEO Eric Schmidt puts it this way:

I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Schmidt  “predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.”

In case all of this wasn’t tricky enough, applying expiration dates to information, should we want to take Mayer-Schonberger’s advice, is somewhere between difficult and impossible.  Luckily, deleting information isn’t the only way to control our collective memory.  As Clay Shirky says, “There’s no such thing as information overload – only filter failure.”  What we view online is only partially determined by what’s online, because everything’s online.  What we view is determined largely by our filters.  Facebook is a filter, as is Google.  My RSS reader is a filter, as is my email inbox.

Blogging for Foreign Policy, Evgeny Morozov is thinking along the same lines:

So what else could we do, given that expiration-date-technology capable of destroying all copies is not an option? This is an easy one: make offensive information harder to find. After all, it’s the fact that our data is findable – most commonly through search engines – that makes us really concerned.

To apply Shirky’s maxim to the question of digital memory, let’s return to Facebook’s Photo Memories.  The albums of photos of my friends from college have been on Facebook for years.  But, until recently, I had to dig to look at them.  They only registered on my feed if someone tagged someone or commented on them. Typically, as time passed, this happened less and less and then not at all.  And so those photos, though available, were no longer viewed.  And then the filter was changed.  Suddenly, albums from years ago are being thrust in front of me and I’m looking through some of them again.  The point is that digital memory is about more than availability.  In practice, it’s about filters.

What do we want to remember and what do we want to forget?  I’m not sure.  I find several of Mayer-Schonberger’s examples of the dangers of remembering to be quite compelling.  But, in general, the availability of more and more information also has plenty of upside.  Obviously, the question is about balancing the two, and I think it’s clear that we don’t yet have any idea where that balance should be struck.

In the meantime, perhaps we should focus on improving the design and governance of our filters.  We should be in favor of openness, transparency, democracy and individual autonomy.  This isn’t the same as saying we want information to be available and transparent.  But if our filters are open, transparent, and democratic, we’ll at least have an easier time evaluating and improving them.

Perhaps we won’t miss forgetting as much as we think.  (Will we wistfully look back at old photos and fondly remember forgetting?)  Yet, there’s reason to think that if we do ever want to forget, the solution lies in filtering the past rather than deleting it.