A Requiem for the Social Past

One of the many items of bacn I receive are notifications of when someone “favourites” one of my Flickr photos. This morning, someone favourited a photo — taken years ago — of one of the kittens I owned who, only a month or two after the photo was taken, died of feline leukemia.

I’ll admit, I was in a low mood already when I got up this morning, but this email kind of put the nail in the day.

Later, an Instagram photo I tweeted months ago while in a bad mood jumped back into my “today world” when somebody found the old tweet and replied to it. There was nothing mean about her tweet, it was good-natured — but it was a tweet I was happy to leave behind.

Sometimes, I don’t want to be reminded of the past.
Social networks don’t help.

This “bubbling up” of the past seems to be happening more often these days, and we have sites like Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter to blame. Conversations are meant to end at some point. But social sites want to keep a “conversation” going, long after it should have stopped.

I am most happy to leave conversations be after a few exchanges or a week or two of dialogue. But, no, just try to do that on Facebook. A discussion that started on Facebook years ago can jump right back into your Notifications stream like the conversation never ended.1

It’s only going to get worse.

Facebook’s new Timeline (the site’s replacement for personal profiles) actually let you pick a month and year in someone’s past and dive right back into a discussion they might rather leave in the past. Take, for instance, that embarrassing story I told on Facebook about my first kiss. (Sorry, you need to be a Facebook friend of mine for that link to work.)

Imagine someone who got divorced three years ago, is only getting over it, getting a friendly “Hey, are you two back together now?” from a friendly, if out-of-touch Facebook friend.

We need an automated solution.

Even basic blog systems these days have a way to halt commenting ability after a certain number of days. Developed to prevent drive-by spam posts, they also have the side benefit of keeping our social past where it belongs — in the past.

I really do wish these sites offered a way to disable notifications or commenting after X number of months or years.

Or, at the least, have a “that kitten is dead now” filter.

What do you think? Are bringing old conversations suddenly back something you like about social media or wish there were a way to turn it off?

  1. Facebook lets you “Unfollow” a discussion, but it’s a manual process. []

  1. That’s a great post. Twitter does impose an expiration date and I believe that they may have something there. By making the default mode be expiring content, owners of the content will have to make a conscious effort if they want something archived.

    Within an organization that uses social tools, this is a huge problem. We generally do want to share files, photos, etc, but it is not the best way to be storing such information as it does not respect taxonomy, search, etc in the same way a more sophisiticated content management system would facilitate. Now take that to the personal life. Using social tools to be our predominant storage vs something like Dropbox, does have its danger like you pointed out. I think tools that mash up both, like Flickr, will have to make a more conscious choice on their strategy. Are they first and foremost a social tool, or a cloud service storage tool? I think that would dictate on how their product would grow and that distinction will also dictate our behaviour as users.

  2. Tod, I definitely have former relationships, former pets, and even former careers, documented on Facebook and in many other media all over the ‘net. I don’t pretend that non sequitur reminders of my past are always present. Yet, I would hesitate to desire them gone completely either. If I shed a tear over a former pet or partner, or turn red when someone reminds me of the time I skied down Sunshine in my Speedo (YouTube is wonderful eh?), that doesn’t mean I regret either, or that I want to hide the existence of either. Having, a slightly inaccurate portrayal on Facebook or other sites seems better to me than stories that get distorted as they are retold.

    I remember most things, the ones I might like relief from remembering I remember all too well. So I guess I don’t have a problem with them being out there. The fact that they are unchanging is at least a comfort.

  3. I agree with you — I don’t think a wholesale erasing of the past is a good idea either. Just some options. :)

  4. I don’t think we can escape those non-sequitur reminders of the past in everyday life either, but it seems particularly jarring to start seeing our pasts in a medium we equate with the present and the future. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that even as a late adopter of Facebook, I now have four years of my past written all over it. I want more control over the new facebook profile when I finally get it because, let’s face it, I just want to. It’s my information.

    But even if we button down every last digital reminder of the past in our social media networks, we will still come across a photo of the long-lived, dearly loved and departed pet, a piece of mail, or a forgotten item of clothing that will pull at our memories… that’s not something I think we as humans are capable of functioning without, as painful as it may be.

    The blog I started when I was very sick – that captured the two worst and most tumultuous years of my life – is no longer online, and although I’m glad that in general it isn’t out there for friends and future employers to read, I do miss it occasionally. There was a certain wisdom that only comes through that sort of tumult that I sometimes wish I could go back to read the way you would read old journals: for just long enough to feel something, and not long enough to feel everything.

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