On the Internet, November 9, 2016, Is Forever

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Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post/Getty Images

This week, social media is going to suck really bad. This is not a prediction, but a statement of fact. I know that social media will be bad — miserable, depressing, heartbroken, self-pitying, disappointed — this week because it was bad in the exact same ways exactly one year ago. This is the week of reliving the 2016 election, day by day, minute by minute, in the eternal memory of our ever-vigilant social self-surveillance tools.

Posts on social media, tossed off on your phone and quickly buried under new content, tend to feel ephemeral, but aside from explicitly temporary services and formats (like vanishing Stories on Snapchat and Instagram) they are permanent. The angry comments you write, the stray observations you make, and the pictures you post are logged and collected by these services, usually so that they can be catalogued and used to generate ad-targeting data. The point is, your activity doesn’t vanish unless you actively decide to delete it — and even then, depending on the terms of service, it might be retained on a remote server somewhere.

This level of retention is mind-boggling, and as internet users have built up enormous corpora over the years — the world’s largest and most detailed scrapbooks — services have arisen to help sort, curate, and put that archival material to use. Chief among them is Timehop, a service that hooks into users’ other social-media profiles and creates a record of activity. Then, on the anniversary of said content, it will serve them back up to users and say, “Remember this?” Facebook has this functionality built into its own social network, tucked away in the sidebar under a section called “On This Day.” Made a fun status update or Instagram post? These services will resurface them for you. Want to be reminded of a fun night out or a beautiful vacation? Timehop and Facebook will do it automatically.

Or maybe you posted about something sad or frustrating that you’d rather not experience again? Tough luck.

On Wednesday, these products are about to get insanely shitty for millions of Americans. They will receive reminders of an optimistic morning — photos of “I voted!” stickers — and a heartbreaking morning after. For others, they’ll be greeted by the shocking happiness of last year’s victory and then the sudden, vitriolic opposition from the other half of the country — a half that believes we have our current president only because of a technicality or due to foreign meddling. On November 8, a fracture turned into a chasm, and the opening volleys from both sides are preserved on servers spread across the country and around the world.

There has been recently a deserved reexamination of how the internet and social media have reshaped the modern world and, in particular, American civic life. Much has been made about how these largely unscrutinized companies have created a black-box environment where content goes in, and content comes out the other end, but nobody has any real idea of how the process works, or of its scope. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, or Twitter’s recommendation algorithm, or Google’s search algorithm are all powerful tools for spreading and relaying information, and they are tightly controlled behind closed doors.

Still, nostalgia features like Timehop and Facebook’s “On This Day” are informative, because they remind us that, at the end of the day, we do this to ourselves. Tech companies encourage us and give us the tools to create a long trail of easily searchable and indexable data, based on emotions that we felt in the spur of the moment and under the assumption that “the internet isn’t real.” The internet has a real object-permanence problem — if we can’t see it, it’s not there. If a tweet is no longer in the feed, if a status update is suppressed by an algorithm, if something isn’t in the first three results of a Google query, it might as well not exist. But for machines, with concerning speed and accuracy, this content always exists, and they are more than happy to throw our own actions back at us.

I don’t subscribe to Timehop and I actively avoid the Facebook “On This Day” section, because, like everyone else, my adolescent face and body looked weird as hell (and also because I haven’t posted anything on Facebook in years). There are no Instagram posts of me cheerfully donning my “I voted” sticker. There are some tweets from November 8, however, and it is at this point that, for once, I am thankful for the hard, ironic carapace that decades of internet usage have given me (November 8, 6:26 p.m.: “buzzfeed keith has called ohio for grumpy cat”). When the long tail of the internet rears its ugly head, trying to seem like you don’t give a shit sometimes pays off.

For more earnest posters, however, the cyber flashbacks might be a bit more devastating. They can blame the tech companies that encourage posting and input without also encouraging users to fully consider their actions or the paper trail they leave behind. At the end of the day, however, we are the ones clicking “Send” or “Post” or “Tweet.” Amid questions of how responsible these companies need to be in protecting users from hoaxes and harassment and misinformation, should they also be required to protect us from ourselves? The answer is clearly no — unlike other algorithmic display decisions, “It’s the anniversary of your dumb post” is a simple justification. And as we log more and more of our lives online, the nostalgia gut punch is only going to get worse.

On the Internet, November 9, 2016, Is Forever