“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.

Narrative, sharing and memory

I was reading an article yesterday about new media as it relates to news processes, but its lessons seem equally applicable to the online museum.
Remembering through Sharing by Julia Sonnevend  addresses Sonnevend’s experiences and observations of entry into an online community engaged in commemorating the death of a film-maker who was brutally murder in Puerto Rico in 2009. After being introduced to the story and community through a friend, Sonnevend became engaged in both learning about – and remembering – a man whom she had never met.

She uses the experience to make two key observations that can be applied to the online museum experience.

The first is that “personalised narrative [can provide an] introduction to further narratives.” She explains:

First, it shows how introductory personalized narratives can help us when we have to choose from many competing stories. You can (and want to) provide your attention only to a very small number of stories and friends can help decide which those will be. Friends’ personalized narratives work as leads to the news items and navigate you in the jungle of news narratives.

In this age of massive data when content curation is an issue of on-going significance, personalised narratives or recommendations can provide an effective entry point into the online museum, be it through social networking sites or other forms of recommendation. If we want people to engage with our websites and collections there needs to be a personal aspect to the engagement, so that the user has a reason to invest their time and energy into the site. While a researcher might examine a collection website because he/she is seeking information on a particular artefact or group of artefacts, if we want non-experts to engage with a site there needs to be a compelling and personal point of entry.

Secondly, Sonnevend discusses sharing as a commemorative act or ‘remembering through sharing’. She writes,

Online commemoration seems a little bit like ‘news:’ central to us for a short time, but forgettable on a long run. Just like traditional news, sharing the information on social networking sites is very effective in triggering social solidarity. And personalized narratives along with personalized visual and textual memorial sites contribute to this triggering effect.

She considers both traditional and new cultural practices for social remembrance, and concludes that the act of sharing information online – through linking and online discussion – is

a quick and powerful way to express solidarity. It is quick, because it does not require more than a few seconds from you. It is powerful, because the low barriers of distribution enable you to broadcast the news to many at the same time. It is important to note, however, that in most of the cases you broadcast to a certain group of people, to your fellow ‘friends’ and ‘followers,’ but not to ‘all.’

Museums are lieux de mémoire – sites of memory. By lowering barriers to engagement and making online objects easy to share and broadcast, we can enable online communities to participate in acts of commemoration and social remembrance and grow their sense of social solidarity.

Museums might make beautiful looking and functional websites, but unless visitors have reason to personally engage with the site and to connect its contents with their own lives, then surely the relationship will be superficial at best. Engagement will come when visitors have an emotional connection to the site and a reason to invest further in it – like when the experience is emotionally rewarding (and maybe even fun!). Personalised narratives can provide a vehicle to get people in, and lowered barriers of engagement can give them a reason to broadcast and share those stories with others. Therefore, when designing museum websites – or apps – maybe we need to consider why someone would personally engage with the site, and how to ensure they broadcast their engagement to get others involved too.