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Facebook: Enough With the Forced Memories

In honor of its 12th anniversary, Facebook has released a new video feature that looks back on its last dozen years as a corporate entity by looking back on the last dozen years of your life — collating into an animated video with a jaunty piano soundtrack and a bunch of photos you’ve shared, ostensibly of your friends. “Here are your friends,” it tells you, as a disembodied hand lays out Polaroid versions of your Facebook photos. “You’ve done a lot together. Your friends are pretty awesome.”

It’s the latest in a long line of Facebook features we didn’t ask for, celebrating “memories” we don’t really have. You can find yours here. It’s terrible. My Friends Day video makes it appear that my only friend is my wife (not true, I swear!).

The Friends Day video has all the same weaknesses as Facebook’s other attempts to mine your memories and friendships — the recurring “On This Day” feature and the year-end videos it creates. Or 2014’s “A Look Back, which you may remember as the saccharine “this was your life”–style retrospective that dredged up your first moments on the site, and the other moments and photos Facebook deemed most significant, presenting them in an aggressively sentimental style that wouldn’t be out of place at a wedding. Or a funeral.

Worse than the unsettling feeling that you’re watching a slideshow at your wake is feeling that the slideshow was put together by shuffling a deck of photos and grabbing the top 25. Traumatic moments and broken relationships are facts of life, and sometimes we need to dredge them up … but on our own terms, not as a nasty surprise in the middle of a frivolous Facebook video.

And then there are the weird, funny, or just irrelevant mistakes. Some of my friends were invited to fondly look back on their relationships with internet memes they posted. “Your friends are pretty awesome.”

Facebook’s attempts to show us our memories assume a certain level of technical literacy on the part of the user, a rudimentary understanding of why mistakes and embarrassments happen, and a willingness to forgive the machines (and their parent corporation) guessing which data points we’ll care about the most. It’s true: The machines couldn’t know they were asking you to recall the good times with your abusive ex, or asking if you remember a friend’s funeral, or treating some meme you screen-grabbed from Twitter like a precious memory. It’s no one’s “fault” that you’re seeing these things. There’s no human with human intentions on whom you can hang the blame, just a lot of code that’s very good at processing the raw data of your life, measuring “engagement,” and making guesses about relationships. That meme must have been important: Look how many of your friends “liked” it!

But the disconnect feels especially awkward given the site’s warm, “human” tone. Hey, buddy! Remember this? Some great times we’ve had here. Is Facebook a blameless machine, or your hapless pal who’s sorry he brought that up? Facebook would like to have it both ways.

Facebook makes your life easier, yes. It’s getting better and better at automating tasks that we used to trust to our fallible human memory: remembering birthdays and anniversaries and what we angrily typed after our team lost an important game, remembering the embarrassing things we typed to girls in college, and the times we changed our hair after a bad breakup. It’s even getting better at knowing that some of those things are important: New job? Marriage? Birth of a child? These are the gimmes. We all tell Facebook about these milestones with the same set of easy-to-parse keywords: start this new adventure, the rest of our lives together, welcome to the world (lbs. weight, oz. weight, in. length). Our friends’ congratulations add further weight to these events in the minds of the machines.

As a database of memories, Facebook is great. We’re hit with more information per day than the people of any other time in history. Our brains, our capacity to remember — they are not designed for this. They need help from a server farm and a user interface. That’s just where we are, and Facebook helps us cope. This is, if not a good thing, at least something that’s widely in demand (Facebook started showing us our memories On This Day after an app called Timehop proved it was something people wanted).

But as an engine for providing context, Facebook leaves much to be desired. It guesses some memories are important, but it doesn’t know why. It doesn’t know which ones are painful, and which are irrelevant. It can guess who our friends are, but it often guesses badly — it doesn’t know that if we have 45 friends in common with someone but haven’t added them, there’s probably a reason.

And it shouldn’t. That messy context? Those complicated relationships that can’t be reduced to “friend” or “not-friend”? Those are basic parts of being a human being. They’re the most enjoyable parts, and sometimes the most difficult and damaging, but they make us who we are. Doing that work is living life, and Facebook can’t live life for us.

Yet. In the company’s ideal future, maybe it could. Maybe every code would be cracked and every one of us would be reduced to little chunks of (very marketable!) Big Data as we go screaming toward the singularity and all become transhuman. Or something. Who knows?

We’re not there yet. Right now, we’re just aware that the more Facebook understands about us, the more insight it can sell. That’s partially why we recoil at our Friends Day videos, at Facebook nakedly demonstrating how much it still doesn’t know about us. It’s not that we’d rather see Facebook get this stuff right, understand us the way a friend would. We’d rather not see it try at all, because Facebook is not our friend.

The tone-deafness of Facebook recap videos is something worse than a brand saying “bae.” It’s a brand saying, “Bae, I’m a piece of corporate technology that’s only been around for 12 years, but really, I’ve been with you since birth. I’ll always be with you. Bae, I’m your friend. I’ll ‘never miss a memory.’”

We just wanted a box to put our photos in.