I'm going to do something that makes me want to throw up a little, though it would've been totally cool and perceptive when I was 17 - start my writing with a lyric from the musical Rent.
"How do you measure, a year in the life?"
If you're on Facebook, you are by now familiar with the "Year in Review" it created for all of its users last week: a slide show featuring month-by-month "highlights" from 2014. Using an algorithm that took into account each user's most viewed, "liked" and commented on pictures and statuses, Facebook assembled the slideshow into a neat recap for users to view and share with friends.
Sounds like a pretty nice feature, unless you had a crappy 2014.
Some Facebook users were startled by photos of loved ones who died this past year, or of people they split from or divorced, or other things associated with bad news. As one would (hopefully) understand, algorithms can't account for good or bad, just what is "popular."
Consequently, Facebook has drawn plenty of public criticism and a fair share of complaints, most notably from a web consultant named Eric Meyer, who stirred up a frenzy of Internet spite toward Facebook when he blogged about his reaction to seeing, "Here's what your year looked like!" on his News Feed above a picture of his 6-year-old daughter who this year died of brain cancer.
This was not a unique problem. I read similar complaints on Facebook, as I'm sure most users did, from at least a couple of friends. Undoubtedly, no one deserves to be needlessly reminded of tragedy, especially not by a website, but is Facebook the real problem here?
After his blog went viral, Meyer wrote another post apologizing for the out-of-context and prejudiced vitriol it brought upon the company.
"Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they're hardly alone," he wrote. "… Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all. I was using Facebook's Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue."
To Meyer, that much wider issue is web application and program design. Clearly most people like the "Year in Review" and sharing it with friends (they certainly flooded my personal News Feed), but how can we better accommodate for these instances of failure?
But that's not my wider issue. My concern is, why care about this at all?
At this point, I should disclose that as much as I enjoy using Facebook, I'm a total cynic when it comes to personal sharing. I usually apply a "why should anyone care?" and "is this anyone else's business?" test to anything I feel inclined to post. Sharing personal opinions, feelings or details of my life do not usually pass this test; sharing my "Year in Review" totally fails it. I see it as rather presumptuous to think that most of my Facebook friends are interested in viewing a slideshow of my "year," especially if they had a particularly awful one.
The folks at Facebook, however, know that I do not hold the majority view, and they continue to assert themselves into a self-anointed role as the digital chronicle of people's lives. Ever since Facebook began shifting to a timeline layout, they have made it very clear that they want users to see the value of their application as a vibrant, social documentation of their existence. You can now, for example, post "life events" to mark and share personal milestones. Facebook knows that if you believe they're providing not just social media, but a service that helps you to record and share the important moments of your life, that you'll never stop using it.
What they've forgotten, however, is that a lot of the important moments of our lives, well, suck. The "Year in Review" is just the first big sign that if Facebook wants to be the way you socially document your life, it needs to help you chronicle and share those challenging, painful moments in an appropriate way.
But I, for one, don't know that I want to see the day they do. I don't know that I want my children and grandchildren to learn about who I was by exploring my Facebook photos and random statuses about my feelings or the latest episode of Game of Thrones. That sounds weird, I know, but that's where we're heading. I want them to ask me, to hear me tell my story. I can imagine a scenario in which they see something on my timeline and ask me about it, but that's as far as I want it to go.
I refuse to let Facebook, or any social media platform, tell my story for me. Whether it's my entire life, the year 2014, or what I do for New Year's, what happened to me as Facebook's algorithms define it, is not what really happened. Even if I poured everything into Facebook, like, tried a Morgan Spurlock-esque experiment in which I used Facebook to document every moment of my waking life, I can't believe that even that would accurately reflect my truth.
So, how do you measure a year in the life?
If I asked you this question out of context, I don't think your answer would be "likes," comments or photos you were tagged in. And it wouldn't be the Tweets you wrote, the pictures you Instagram-ed or the video you sent via Snapchat that in less than 10 seconds vanished into digital dust. Hopefully you'd say it was the relationships you built, the simchas you celebrated, the hardships you overcame - or, as Rent, so poignantly suggests - love.