“You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory.”
It’s easy to understand why Andy Dufresne, wrongfully imprisoned protagonist of the Shawshank Redemption, would value a place with no memory, no history. What’s less obvious, at least to me, is why we all feel that way.
Because clearly we must. Facebook, after all, has in recent days passed first the 400 million user mark and then Yahoo. And while the tool is exquisitely well designed to help us share the present, as far as the world’s most popular social network is concerned, the past may as well have never happened. What were you doing this time last year? Good luck figuring that one out; the UI certainly isn’t going to help you.
Which is not to single out Facebook: Twitter is no better. I can’t find an answer to the question of how far back Twitter lets you browse in their API documentation, but I’ve seen the number 3200 claimed a few times. If that’s true, about 66% of my Twitter history is non-visible to me, the author. And while my iPhone dutifully backs up my SMS history, it does not – at least as far as I can tell – expose it to me. The closest thing is knowing where they’re stored on the file system.
Yes, there are workarounds for all of the above: piping feeds into backup services like BackupMyTweets or YouArchiveIt, using one off tools to extract and store your data, and so on. But how many users do you think will be able to find and successfully use those? More to the point: what are they going to do with raw backups? How will they search it, look it up by date, or drop it in a calendar?
They won’t, in all likelihood. It will be just like it is today: as if the past had never happened.
For some, that might be a good thing. For others, it won’t matter, because the content is of marginal value or less. But for a subset of users and a subset of content, the unavailability is not a boon. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, to look back on all the congratulations you received when you had a child? Started your new job? Got married? Or just had a birthday? More interestingly, might not that content have latent, unrealized value? Isn’t it possible, for example, that you could do sentiment analysis on your Twitter stream and have a more realistic and objective look at fluctuations in your mood and outlook, day to day, month to month, or year to year? Might you be able to mine it for undiscovered patterns of behavior? Imagine being able to browse your Facebook, Twitter and SMS history via just a simple calendar, the way you can FourSquare. Are the privacy issues? You bet. But the alternative – privacy through simple loss of data – is no more attractive.
There’s a reason that some very smart people are interested in “logging” more and more aspects of their lives: the more data you have, the more meaningful the conclusions you can extract. Unfortunately, Facebook, Twitter et al are just trying to keep their heads above water at this point – four months ago, Facebook was adding 24-25 terabytes per day – so returning our data to us period, let alone making it useful and meaningful, just isn’t a priority for them right now. In fact, we can probably recreate the Civil War more accurately from correspondence than we can the recent events of our lives.
But it should be more of a priority for us, and for those building applications for us. Because living strictly in the present at the expense of the past rarely does anyone any good. Just ask George Santayana.