“All your stories, all your apps, and a new way to express who you are” – Did Facebook just become a social history museum?

Mark Zuckerburg launches Facebook Timeline

Wow. So Facebook just took an interesting step into the memory market, didn’t it? In launching Facebook Timeline, Mark Zuckerberg made the statement “We think it’s an important next step to help tell the story of your life.”

Fascinating. It’s not a massive surprise to see Facebook trying to stake out more territory in the memory and identity market. The more they become associated with people’s memories, the less likely it is that people will jump ship like they did with social networks like myspace. But this move could have some really interesting implications for the way for both the way we use the site, but also for the way we record memory.

Lately I’ve been talking to a number of curators at the Powerhouse about how they conduct collection-related research, and more than one has indicated that the required fields in the museum’s collection software in part dictate the information they seek out. That’s only natural – there are fields that need to be filled in, and therefore no research feels complete until all are populated. But I wonder whether Facebook’s moves into the (commercialised) memory market could have similar effects. Will people start locating their old photos (such as ones of their parents when they got married etc) simply because Facebook gives them a box to fill out? I think they will.

Belinda Barnet makes a really interesting point in her 2003 article, The erasure of technology in cultural critique. She writes:

There is no lived memory, no originary, internal experience stored somewhere that corresponds to a certain event in our lives. Memory is entirely reconstructed by the machine of memory, by the process of writing; it retreats into a prosthetic experience, and this experience in turn retreats as we try to locate it. But the important point is this: our perception, and our perception of the past, is merely an experience of the technical substrate. It is a writing with traces, a writing of traces.

This binding together of memory and the prosthetic way it is constructed external to ourselves is something addressed by José van Dijck in her 2004 paper Memory matters in the Digital Age. When discussing the choice of saving one of two types of objects from a burning building – a box full of pictures and memory objects, or a box of precious jewellery and identity papers – Dijck suggests that we have an attachment to the memory objects because they are an irreplaceable link to our past and who we are. She writes:

memory objects apparently carry an intense material preciousness, while their nominal economic value is negligible. The loss of these items is often equated to the loss of identity, of personal history inscribed in treasured shoebox-contents.

This is where the Facebook timeline starts to get a little interesting. In this digital age, our shoeboxes of memory items are not always tangible. I would guess that most photographs that people take don’t end up stored in physical photo albums any longer, but instead end up in digital storage spaces, on Facebook and Flickr! The traces to which our memory is attached are being stored by commercial companies, and we have no real control over how they could be used into the future.

But more than that, if Facebook continues to move into the territory of memories, I wonder whether it come become something akin to a universal museum that maps the stories of the world. After all, soon it will not only have hundreds of millions of users, but it will be able to map the relationships between them, and store their digital objects as well. By getting people so invested in the site, and being able to aggregate their data, Facebook is starting to do something that no museum has ever done in telling the stories of the world today. If Facebook timeline starts to extend all the way back into the past and people scan and post their memory objects of their parents and grandparents, and even their full family trees, it will have a really unique control over our historical information. For social history museums in particular, this could be an incredibly rich datasource. Maybe instead of teaming up with Google like art museums have started to do in Art Project, social history museums should be teaming up with Facebook?

In museums, we constantly talk about how objects are animated by their stories, and that stories are anchored by their objects. When, the way it looks right now, Facebook is making a claim for both. On the introduction page to Timeline, the tagline is “Tell your life story with a new kind of profile.” Soon Facebook could have our digital objects, and our stories. It’s a very interesting move.

12 thoughts on ““All your stories, all your apps, and a new way to express who you are” – Did Facebook just become a social history museum?

  1. At the risk of repeating myself from twitter, I’d reference this clip from Mad Men – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suRDUFpsHus.

    The important difference here between Facebook and a social history museum is the product. It’s important to remember that if you’re not paying for a service, *you’re* likely the product. And that’s true with Facebook and not necessarily with many museums. Their collections and their objects are frequently the focus of their product … and many museums ask you to pay admission and/or membership which correlates with my adage above.

    Facebook Timeline has every reason to succeed. We’re the products of our memories and experiences and Timeline brings that to life. Facebook has already been successful in helping people reconnect with their forgotten pasts (we all have that person we’ve reconnected with because of Facebook). So, I’m not sure that Facebook is the right model because, even if I assign meaning making to objects in a museum’s collection, they’re still not really my things.

    Facebook Timeline is my collection of my stuff. I’ve been curator and I’m the primary consumer. A museum is frequently a collection of other people’s stuff. Even if I’m allowed to create my own collection, it’s still my collection of other people’s stuff, and the chance for nostalgia and meaning isn’t nearly so strong.

    It’s a subtle difference, but an important one, I think.

    1. Hi Bruce. Lovely to have your comment. I agree with you on the memory and meaning-making, but I think you are approaching the argument from a different place than I am.

      Museum collections often started privately, out of an individual’s stories and interests. They gain meaning later down the track, when we attach a social value to them. This is where I think the interesting thing with Timeline is. It’s not so much in the “now”, when we collect our own stuff, but in the “then”, when it becomes possible to see the relationships between people and things and stories in new ways. The cumulative value and effect of Facebook collecting and collating stories (which at the moment is done for profit value) could also come to have incredible social value. Over time, we might even be able to see, through FB tagging etc, relationships between consumers based on the products they invest in, and how those purchases influence others or spread through a population – all of which is incredibly powerful information to have. And it gives incredible insight into whole populations that were maybe unavailable before now.

      It’s capturing digital objects and stories and relationships in a way that I don’t think museums are yet doing, but that could give significant value to museums in the long run, which is why I think the idea of social museums partnering with FB on something like this could be interesting.

  2. But, that’s the business intent of Amazon, Google, and Facebook, no? They’re trying to position themselves as being influential based on the patterns of how people use and do things. There’s been an incredible amount of value on looking at the relationships between users and the products they purchase and use.

    If you can find a copy of Amazon’s original business plan, it was entirely about building relationship marketing and purchasing “… using such things as books.”

    So, do I want to see museum invest in relationships and creating venues (in the real and virtual worlds) for those things to flourish? Yes. Do I want museums to seed those experiences with the objects of their collections? Yes. Do I want to see museums help those relationships grow over time? Absolutely. But the dilemma for museums is that they’re not in a position to change their business models easily to benefit from making their users the product. The value proposition is still, come to us, pay us something, and carry on (yes, I’m being simplistic to make my point).

    Facebook isn’t in the role of curation. The users entirely are. Museums absolutely are in the role of curation and begrudgingly let users do it. They start from very different places and are trying to get to very different places. Some of the process looks similar, but…

    So, yes, partner every chance you get, but make sure that you have an idea of what your desired outcome is going to be and know well in advance when and where you’re going to differ with your potential partners.

  3. Let me try this a different way. Yes, Facebook is collecting an incredible amount of information — much of it being the same sort of information a social history museum wants to collect. It’d be awesome if they let some organizations begin to tap into that burgeoning archive, but they have no good reason for doing so and it’s going to take considerable effort to get access. You’re asking for access to the thing that really does make up their core business and they’re a very, very young company.

    1. Yes, that I do agree with. Museums and FB are incredibly different, and come from very different places and mindsets, and maybe a partnership would not be appropriate anyway. I just think that Facebook’s remaking itself from simply a social site into a memory one is an interesting transition. Commercialising memory is a very powerful way to link your product/company intimately with people’s lives (as your Mad Men clip demonstrated beautifully)… but doing so with information that can be aggregated to tell entire stories about society (which is possible) does have interesting implications for FB’s role in social memory production too. And I guess that’s where I think the interesting conversations between museums and the Timeline could start to come in.

      BTW – I don’t yet know exactly what I think about this all just yet. I just think there are some new questions that could be raised if FB does start to transition itself more fully to an organisation that holds claim to the stories of (a large pocket of) society.

      1. There is a precedence here – Library of Congress acquiring the Twitter archive of public tweets. The only problem is that the social graph and content that Facebook uses isn’t explicitly public in the way that Twitter is/was. Even those who leave their Facebook profiles relatively open are not necessarily seeing their content as ‘entirely public’.

        The Museum of Me (advertising) project that Intel did (http://www.intel.com/museumofme/) is probably not the sort of future we want to live in. Or is it?

  4. Ha. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to live in the Museum of Me.

    I’ve been thinking about this a bit more since yesterday. Bruce – your point about curation is an interesting one. This piece from Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2304425/) discusses the FB Ticker and how it actually leads to less curation of content, not more. I guess FB is collecting information indiscriminately (more like an archive?), rather than selecting information as museums do.

    So maybe it’s actually a new sort of memory institution – a social memory box in which objects are self-selected by the same people who contribute to and shape it.


  5. Hello Suse, and Bruce, thanks for this post and discussion. The thing I’d like to draw focus on here, is the people who populate those spaces with their memories, either Facebook, or museum. I look around me, and see those people I know who use online storage and share spaces as their albums of the day.. but every so often, they go some place else to reconcile, and curate their nostalgia. They might use one of those plugin businesses to Flickr, to generate a nicely printed and bound photo album/book. Or they might simply download all their favourites out of Facebook, and head off to the local printery and spend 50 or 60 dollars on a whole bunch to frame and put around the house. Or they might simply load them in their phone, to scroll through and show off on train rides and dinners. I don’t think digital has replaced the tangible, it has simply positioned itself in the carousel.. a bit like the 24 or more film frames we exposed, only to pick one that we will keep. Facebook and the like are the 24 forgettable exposures, and something else is the one. FB, the social museum, the shoe box in the attic, it collects the 24 disarded for every one that is kept and used some pace else. Those places and the faceless machines and people that work in them, are not a concern for the person who just wants to share and connect, then hold onto and preserve in themselves. Social trends, market analysis, social museums, they’re the bi product of our usage, whether it be film, hand written, digital, facebook, or the local printer. Dropping from all that is the refuse, laying there as data for someone else to see value in. See you tomorrow Suse.

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