The author pictured in a Facebook album he just rediscovered from his freshman year in college. Image: Facebook.
Like a lot of people who spend too much time on the internet, I marked Facebook's 10th birthday with a quiet moment of reflection. Not even a moment, really. I've spent the last few days digging ever deeper into a rabbit hole entirely of my own creation, trying to get a clear picture not of how the social network exists now, but of all the ways I have existed within it since I first joined late in 2007.
This has been a lot harder than I thought. Partly to blame is Facebook's surprisingly tricky interface—the ever-unfolding onslaught of new information in its stream that makes a retrospectively viewing anything that happened earlier than a few days ago a nigh impossible endeavor. But it's also a matter of context. Facebook, I've come to realize, has changed a lot since I first joined.
That probably sounds like an obvious observation. And on one level, it is. The Facebook of today doesn't look anything like the Facebook of 2007—or the "The Facebook" of a decade ago. And it doesn't feel like it either, which is part of the problem of Facebook in retrospect.
I watched my "Look Back" video this morning, and was struck by how much it got wrong. This was a strange emotion—the rejection I felt stirring around inside me upon realizing that a social network didn't understand me as well as I thought it should. Not just misunderstanding; Facebook didn't seem to really know me. Time's Techland quiz published last week told me that I've spent more than 34 days of my life on Facebook—a conservative estimate considering that I was too embarrassed to even hazard a guess about how much time I really give to the network on a daily basis. And even after all of that time spent inside its blue borders, the first of the "early moments" that Facebook pulled up in my personalized video was a photo I'd posted from my semester abroad in college, three years after I first joined.
As I dug deeper, things only got weirder. Facebook told me when my relationships began, but never when they ended. Posts from acquaintances in college gave the punchlines to jokes I can't remember making. Someone I can't remember said "hey sexy boy." My brother's ex girlfriend posted on my wall about us all getting Chinese food together. She's married now, and I just learned from looking at her profile picture that she's expecting. And yet, there she is on July 26, 2007, asking if I wanted to go to Tiger Noodles that Friday. It's a moment encapsulated in time, but with none of the faux permanence of a photograph: the her in that moment is inextricably linked to the her now—with a new partner, a new profile picture, even a new name.
And then there were my statuses. Oh, my statuses. Something about the supreme dorkiness of statements like "is listening to his brother's death-metal to stay awake for another few hours and study..." embarrasses me more than the many photos immortalizing my life as a teenager. But even stranger is my dutiful obedience to Facebook's own prompts inviting me to post my thoughts.
Facebook first introduced the status update in 2006 with the guided prompt of "[Your name] is…". By the end of 2007, it had abandoned the "is" part of this in favor of a more open-ended status box. Years later, it's still experimenting on and off with different prompts from 2012's brief foray into the creepily personal "What's going on, Yannick?" to the present day "What's on your mind?"
Irrespective of the psychological questions of how each of these separate prompts nudges one to use Facebook in subtly different ways, it's strange to see my series of first status updates from 2007 all beginning with "Yannick is." The architecture of Facebook today is no longer built around this single, unifying phrase. Devoid of any meaningful context (remember that the "Like" button wasn't introduced until 2009, and comments on status updates even later), they stick out as nonsensical ramblings, periodic journal entries with the rest of the pages ripped out. Some of them probably were nonsensical ramblings even at the time I first wrote them, but I don't think I was nearly as spastic then as I appear now.
The historians of the future will face a troubling quandry when they try to figure out how to use things like social media to understand even a modicum of our shared cultural experience online. But as the social network ages alongside its legions of users, Facebook has also begun to wrestle with its own historiography.
Younger rivals like Twitter and SnapChat lionize their own twitchy spontaneity as a selling point. Ever since Facebook first rolled out the timeline to all of its users at the beginning of 2012, on the other hand, it's been trying to nudge its users to construct a more sincere and robust personal biography than any online entity before it. I find this effort intriguing, but its current impossibility is also uniquely comforting. My history on social media, like any other history, is vague, filtered, and retrospective. Try as I might to recall what I was thinking when I wrote one of my "Yannick is…" status updates, I, like the profile picture I have now, can only view these artifacts through the haze of the present. Facebook's evolution and up-to-minute-aspirations really reinforce this truth.
That doesn't always give me perfect sense of clarity. But would I really want that?