promise I’ll be just as fabulous

I did Facebook’s “year in review” thing. I did it because it kept showing up on my feed and because I saw my friends doing it, and somewhere in his secret volcano fortress Mark Zuckerberg rubbed his fingertips lightly together and hissed “Eeeeeeeeeeexcellent.”

I also did it because I was curious to see what it would toss up. What does Facebook consider “my year”? What does it think is noteworthy? I didn’t know, at the time, how the specific algorithms involved specifically operated. So I just hit yeah sure and waited to see what it spit back at me.

Makeup selfies, mostly. So… that was 2014 for me. Okay.

(It sort of was)

But the other thing I noticed – which is old news by now – was that a huge amount of what I did and said on Facebook in 2014 – much of which I consider pretty important – just wasn’t there at all. What I was looking at was not 2014 for me (apart from the makeup selfies). Algorithms took my own vaguely defined narrative regarding what I understood as my year and imposed their own meaning on it before presenting it to me as if I should be pleased.

Some of my friends seemed to be. My reaction was mostly “…huh.”

Which is a far cry from Eric Meyer, for whom Facebook selected a photo of his dead daughter as the cover for his year in review, which – for obvious reasons – was enormously painful to him. The term he used in reference to this is “algorithmic cruelty”, which has since picked up a lot of usage because it works really well as a descriptor. But I’m specifically interested in why this happened at all, not necessarily in terms of these particular algorithms or even algorithms in general but more in terms of why we do these things. Why we feel the need to have them. Facebook probably wouldn’t have done this at all if they didn’t perceive that it was something people might be inclined to do anyway.

I think a lot of us do some kind of wrap-up or review at the end of every year. We want to do some kind of stock-taking. I think there are a number of emotional and psychological reasons for this, and I don’t think they’re just the individual self engaging in monologue, but I think primary among these reasons is the desire to solidify a self-narrative, to understand who we are and what this year has made us, and where we might go next in the new one. Which is obviously extremely arbitrary storytelling – we’re never as coherent and self-consistent as we like to pretend we are. Self-narratives may not be false, but they’re always biased, and they’re always massive oversimplifications.

Our stories don’t always make a whole lot of sense. We don’t like to admit that to anyone, least of all ourselves.

The end of a year marks a point of wholeness, a roundness, at which this kind of storytelling seems appropriate.

The thing is, when we do these kinds of self-motivated years-in-review, we’re the ones setting the terms, and we’re the ones who want to understand ourselves. We get to decide what’s important and what’s worthy of being included. We have the power to curate our own histories.

That power is not equally distributed. The question of who has the right and the ability to tell their own stories is profoundly shaped by social power and inequality, and this is true on both micro and macro levels. The personal histories of individuals are stolen and erased by the same processes that do the same to entire cultures. The question is always who gets to tell their own stories and why, but it’s also who doesn’t, and who’s preventing them from doing so.

This isn’t just about algorithms being thoughtlessly cruel, having the problems that algorithms have an enormous amount of the time. This is about something powerful – Facebook – claiming that power in order to tell us a story about ourselves, the terms of which we don’t really control. I’m not saying this is actively oppressive in the same way as what I described above. I am saying it’s problematic, and it’s worth paying attention to in this sense.

Powerful institutions deciding the terms under which our lives are arranged and understood isn’t new. What sets this apart, in my opinion, is that it’s a story Facebook is telling to you, and to your friends. Here, this is what you look like. This is who you are.

I haven’t begun to tease out all the implications of this, but I think there are a lot of them and I think they’re troubling. Storytelling of this kind – this is who I am, this is what I’m about, this is where I’ve been and where I’m going – is historically profoundly communal. Generally, even constrained by the storytelling medium in which we work, we have a fair amount of control over what that story looks like. In some cases we have more than we did before. Not in this case.

So. Yeah.

Man, my makeup was awesome this year.

Sarah is self-absorbed on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry