Monday, October 31, 2011

Who Needs Memoir When We Have Facebook?

Last month Facebook introduced Timeline, a new profile design that attempts to create the story of your life, starting from the moment you were born. It essentially turns the social media site into a mini memoir machine:

Of course mini-memoirs like this video and the examples on the info page are really just a form of PR developed in support of each of our personal brands. These aren't stories that try to make sense of the painful or incomprehensible parts of life. There is no divorce, miscarriage, death here -- only the awesome things that we're doing with all our awesome, photogenic friends.

But as the social web continues to be integrated into our lives, it becomes more difficult to keep the messier, more complicated parts of actual life separate from our online stories.

In this All Tech Considered post, Dave Pell describes a father who blogs about grieving the death of his one-year-old daughter and how he found himself constantly reminded of her through Facebook and the "dumb machines." Pell writes:
I was disturbed when I first came across Daniel’s blog. This topic seemed too big and too serious for the social web. Should this be shared?... 
Ultimately this is where we live now. If the Internet is where we experience life, it's inevitable that it's where we'll experience death as well. If you're a young parent who just lost a kid, where else are you going to go?
Like it or not, this is home. 

Yes, this is home; a place where we will continue to write our stories. In the way that the web has been making all of us publishers since the 90s,  the social web is now making all of us memoirists. We already consume each others' memoirs in real-time streams, and as we continue living much of our lives online, we will get better at using these tools to tell the full stories of our lives.

So how does this make us think of memoir differently? And what, then, is the value of a more composed, book-form memoir? It seems inevitable that these new storytelling tools will change, in ways yet unknown, how we tell our stories in other forms, including memoir.

But memoir will continue to give us what it always has: time. Memoirs offer us memory through time -- not only the months or years that have passed since the events occurred, but the time that the writer takes in order to compose something about his or her changing awareness. Memoirs give us the other side to the constant stream of events (whether in our physical or online lives), and a way of stepping outside of that stream in order to understand something about that rush of events and about the passage of time itself.


  1. You've nicely delineated the difference between raw material and shaped material. There will always be a need to make sense of things and that's the ultimate value of memoir.

  2. Facebook's Timeline is a basically an online version of the scrap booking trend (that for some reason disturbs me). Mothers (and some fathers) have extended the traditional "baby book" into the glossy pre-fab decorated happy highlights of their children's lives well into adulthood.
    What intrigues me is the fact that Timeline begins at birth, therefore, makes me ask, whose story is this? It cannot possibly be the child's story. It is the parents' version of their child's life. Not that this is in some way "bad." It is what it is, but don't call it memoir.

  3. Yes, I'd agree that it's very scrapbook-y and does raise questions about who is really telling the story.
    And just to make sure I was clear -- Facebook doesn't actually call this layout a memoir, and I don't mean to be calling it one either, just wondering how all these little ways in which we publish our lives connect to memoir.