algorithm or emotion?


Originally posted in 2014.

In case you missed it, Facebook just had its 10th birthday and helped you make a video photo montage to celebrate. By creating an algorithm, Facebook captured a selection of users most-liked photos, statuses, and key life events then set the selections to the pace of a sweet, appropriately swelling musical score — encapsulated in a minute. It was bound to bring a tear to the eye of even the most jaded social networker among us.

So far 200 million videos have been viewed, and 50 percent of the videos created have been shared. My friend Vanessa, a frequent user of Facebook, offered up this comment on Facebook after her video rendered:

It’s so interesting how human and sentimental the choices out of everything I’ve posted. I’m fascinated by the idea that an algorithm that uses human approval (“Likes”) in someway produces something that seems so personal.

Many other friends and family have echoed similar sentiments. Yet, I believe it’s not the algorithm that makes the video capture successful but rather it’s what we have chosen to capture that creates the built-in poignancy. After all, when an algorithm picks from a pre-produced highlight reel of your life — how could it miss?

At it’s very core, Facebook has become our virtual shoebox; our personal memory book. What we choose to post on Facebook are those moments we want to capture, share, preserve, and remember. It’s true the photographs are posted with momentary swiftness but they are also placed with memorable intent. From selfies to celebrations the images leverage a common visual language as the very foundation of each posted expression.

As photography takes center stage on today’s social media platforms, given the ease of use of modern capture devices (i.e. mobile phones, point and shoot cameras, tablets, etc.), the ability to transmit and duplicate images occurs at a much quicker rate than even the humble Kodak Brownie afforded the masses when first introduced in January 1900. But, whether then or now, the ability for lay people to create photographic images has also produced an opportunity for them to communicate non-verbally through the distribution of those images.

In 2013, over 500 million photographs were shared daily on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat worldwide. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project  (Duggan, 2013), 54% of U.S. internet users have posted original photos or videos to websites and 47% share photos or videos found elsewhere online.

Is the “Look Back” tribute cheesy or a potent reminder that Facebook is woven into the fabric of our lives? Mashable posted a parody by MechaStewart that supplants the precious moments with security alerts, and other parodies are surfacing like this YouTube post entitled “An Honest Look Back”. And, the very popular Walter White “Look Back” video.

If you’re not happy with “Look Back” Facebook created, you can now go back and re-edit your video and replace those automated, pre-selected emotional moments from a larger selection of automated, pre-selected emotional moments. You are still limited by the choices the algorithm makes, Facebook just gives you a broader subset from which to choose.

Which only goes to show, algorithms or not, we are still the best curators and editors of our own lives.