My dad once told me never to write anything down that I wouldn’t want read back to me in court. It was rather a startling note of caution to offer a twelve-year-old on AOL Instant Messenger, but the point was well taken. From that point on, typing anything anywhere online felt like a gamble with infamy. Fast-forward to 2011, and my worst fears of 2001 seem very nearly realized.
The slow, wall-by-wall encroachment of Facebook’s “Timeline” feature has for many of us brought the past five or six years to a harrowing present. Now, suddenly and without preface, the Facebook pasts of friends, friends-of-friends, and Facebook-official loved ones lurk in a single sidebar—every wall post, every status update, every damning e-flirtation ever issued, all collected chronologically in one place. Be still, my mouse.
Potential shame and incrimination aside, the real horror is the ease and precision with which we Facebook users are now able to view the recent past—both our own and others’. Except perhaps in the case of court stenography, when else is any exchange between people so cleanly recorded, time-stamped, and published? Add to this the fact that it is not merely one exchange preserved in this manner, or a trail of exchanges between two people, but rather countless exchanges between countless people, over the course of years.
To be sure, very little of the seemingly limitless information now available in Timeline will prove useful in the slightest. What communication of any weight or purpose happens via Facebook in the first place? Since the outset, the sense of visibility inherent to the entire experience prevents much of anything private from happening in the Timeline-able public eye. What is available may even be a pleasant sort of rediscovery— for instance, I recently came across a video a good friend of mine sent me for my birthday in 2009. More often than not, it’s not the actual record that’s troubling; it’s the fear of finding something one had mercifully forgotten.
Waxing portentous, this method of accessing the past may spell the end of reminiscing—to be replaced by what amounts to transcript review. Nostalgia, too, may be in danger of falling by the e-wayside, because after all, how can one long for what remains plainly in front of his nose? Indeed, in the new era of Facebook the past may cease to recede, and instead carry on in an endless, ever-thickening present.
A vanishing point is vital if we are ever to progress. How can we ever hope to move gracefully from selfies in the mirror (high school) to candids at keggers (college) to ordinary pictures of ourselves doing nothing embarrassing (real life) if the past remains in constant presence? Instead, the Now is full of Then, and it’s doubtful we’ll ever escape it. Last month I saw an ad for a phone with a Facebook button. On it. Facebook is become life, and we’re living it.
So what hope is there? Facebook enmeshed itself so completely in our day-to-day lives that at times it’s difficult to determine where Facebook ends and real life begins.
Of course, no matter where you go, there you are—and Facebook’s geotagging feature lets you determine precisely where that is.