Facebook Timeline and 'The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'

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Facebook Timeline is finally rolling out to the mass of the service's users. As that happens, people are coming to terms with how they are going to manage the meaning machine.

Writer and photographer Cheri Lucas found a new appreciation for the movie about memory erasure, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, when she was confronted with curating her existence on Timeline. Her honest reverie is worth reading.

The process of (mechanical) self-creation that Timeline asks of its users is going to be difficult. We're talking about people's lives here, and if you haven't heard, life can be hard. Businessweek tech writer Brad Stone cut to the heart of the problem when he tweeted, "Facebook Timeline: Evidence that no one at Facebook has ever gotten fat, lost their hair or gone through a divorce."

But even people who haven't ever gotten fat, lost their hair, or gone through a divorce will be faced with hundreds of tiny decisions about how to depict themselves for public consumption. And that's what I love about Lucas' reflections. Her approach is provisional, introspective, and conflicted. There is something satisfying about deleting the past, and the past remains, a ghost without a machine.

Last night, I sifted through my entire Facebook history and deleted comments, hid status updates, and untagged or removed unflattering photos I'd forgotten about. I didn't delete much, as prior to 2011, I wasn't that active on Facebook: I'd deactivated my account numerous times and was nearly nonexistent from 2007 to the first half of 2010. Still, I combed my Facebook wall like I was meticulously proofreading a job at work. Why? Not because any of the content was inappropriate, or meant to be a secret, but because I micromanage myself. Because I'm a perfectionist.

And because sometimes I just want to erase: to forget in the same way I had wanted to forget everything associated with a past relationship and a hard, confusing breakup.

But my curation of my own history--the deleting of previous status updates, the "featuring" of particular posts--is strange. More so than before, I am able to highlight what is important in my life--or what I want others to view as important--and fill in missing details from today to when I was born:

And no, there is nothing new about telling my life story exactly the way I want. But with the memory erasing procedure in Eternal Sunshine fresh in my mind, I find Timeline--and my general ability to click "Delete"--fascinating. And at the same time, rather scary.

"Once you get timeline, you'll have 7 days before anyone else can see it. This gives you a chance to get your timeline looking the way you want before other people see it." Right here, in Timeline's instructions, I'm encouraged to pluck out my flaws and dismiss memories that aren't life-altering or amazing.

And yet Timeline isn't all about pruning and perfecting--we can note the end of a relationship, for instance, if we want to:

I can see how some people will find inputting missing details of their lives to be fun. But I sense a forced organization of things that can't--or shouldn't--be compartmentalized. And further digitization of my memories.

I don't know. After watching Eternal Sunshine again, and feeling good about it this time around, I kinda want to let my memories just be.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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