Over the past decade, Facebook has become integrated into the everyday lives of many of its 1.28 billion active users to the point that Facebook can no longer be considered "new media." The site is driven by the "disclosures" (Stutzman, Gross and Acquisti) users make on the site—by uploading photos, writing status updates, commenting on posts made by others, sharing news items, entering biographical details, and so on. These digital traces of life are archived by default, persisting indefinitely as etches in Facebook’s servers around the world. Especially for young users who have grown up using Facebook, significant parts of their social and cultural lives have been played out on the site. As spaces in which the persona is enacted and made visible, social network sites like Facebook also effectively capture growing up stories through a chronicle of mediated, transitional experiences: birthdays, graduations, the beginning (and end) of relationships, first jobs, travel, and so on. For these reasons, Facebook also comes to serve as a site of memorialisation for users who have passed away.
To mark its tenth anniversary (2014), Facebook drew attention to the great depth and wealth of experiences users had traced upon its pages through the release of one-minute "look back" videos, chronicling the life of individual users over their time on Facebook. These videos have become short manifestations of the personas presented on the site, crafted through an algorithmic selection of critical moments in the user’s life (as shared on the site) to tell that user’s story. To turn Bowker’s musings in the above quote into a question, what do these sets of traces that we leave in the world add up to?
In this article, I undertake a critical reading of Facebook’s look back videos to argue that they serve as the strongest reminder yet about the function of Facebook as memory archive. I draw on several sources: my own analysis of the structure of the videos themselves, the Facebook corporate blog describing the roll out of the videos, and the public campaign played out on YouTube by John Berlin to have a look back video generated for his deceased son. I argue that Facebook comes to serve two critical functions for users, as both the site upon which life narratives are performed and organised, and also the site through which the variously public and private disclosures that constitute a persona are recalled and reflected upon. In setting out these arguments, I divide this paper into three parts: first, a description and reflection upon my own experience of the look back video; second, a consideration of critical moments selected for inclusion in the look back videos by algorithm as persona; and third, a discussion of death and memorialisation, as a sharp example of the significance of the digital traces we leave behind.