The Year In You

The real year-end review for 2012 is a review of ourselves. And auto-nostalgia has its limits.

What had started as a cute end-of-the-year distraction for a handful of engineers and product managers has become a grave ritual commanding all the resources of a full-blown product launch, complete with all the pomp and circumstance of inspirational marketing videos: the tech company year-end review, which has reached new heights this year with Facebook, Google, and Twitter. And it’s not just 2012 in the worldwide context they’re reviewing: Now they’re reviewing us.

The original purpose of these year-end reviews has evolved from something like “check out what the year was like from our quirky perspective, like remember that time everybody searched for ‘the Macarena’ way back in March, hahaha” into a message that’s far weightier: “Look at how important our service was to the world over the last year. Can you imagine what the world would be like without us? How would you even know what happened?” Seriously, watch these videos.

It’s a message that also exploits the special circumstances of our moment, one in which our craving for nostalgia is so intense that we don’t even wait for a second to pass — we constantly manufacture it out of the present — so zooming out to an entire year on the timeline almost feels breathtaking in scope. To that end, Facebook and Twitter, the dominant archives of our lives, have capped off the year by offering not simply year-end summations of the whole world, viewed through the billion-lensed prism of their vast data troves, but year-end reviews of ourselves. There is something appealing about the promise of this kind of easy, comprehensive, data-driven, objective analysis of ourselves and who were are, because genuine self-analysis is, like, hard. If Google is our new brain, why can’t Facebook be our new psychologist?

But this practice has its limits — literally in the case of Twitter, which could only crawl back 3,200 tweets; so for many users, their “year in review” was more like “month in review.” Facebook reduces the last 365 days of your life down to 20 moments — and while there’s a truth to the notion that only a small sliver of your lived experience is worth noting, my “20 biggest moments” actually comprised maybe 10 discrete events, with their weight calculated not by how much they actually mattered to me as a person, but seemingly by how much they were shared by people who were, um, not me.

There is a place for this kind of remembering, though — a road trip, a wedding, a cool praying mantis — are all the kinds of moments people do want to remember, moments they don’t want washed away in the tidal wave of Now that constantly crashes through their newsfeed and Twitter stream.

But there is the stuff no one wants to remember, ever, and this is precisely why, I think, Google doesn’t offer the same kind of self-analysis that Facebook and Twitter do. The most direct portal into the darkest recesses of a person’s soul is what he or she has Googled, and mining that particular trove is like looking for bits of insight amidst a personal Superfund site. Digging through a year of Google searches would probably sink most people into a depression about the state of the lives so intense that beaming a rainbow directly into their eyes as they sit on a chair upholstered in unicorn fur for a year straight would not pull them out of it.

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