Book Review: Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory

I’ve long had a fascination with digital archives, so much so that I spent an entire chapter of my PhD dissertation on the evolving, politically contentious digital archive of the 2011 Egyptian revolution…

So I was interested in reading Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory: Classification, Ranking, and Sorting of the Past by Ben Jacobsen and David Beer and was lucky enough to be invited to review it for a special issue of Internet Histories Journal. The short book is a thought-provoking exploration of some of the technical characteristics of social media “memory” as well as the anxieties around what algorithmic labelling and surfacing of this emotional category of digital material might mean for memory more broadly.

Unfortunately, this review is behind a paywall. So, here are some excerpts, and if you’d like to read the full piece and can’t access the journal, please get in touch with me.

“The introduction sets out the core preoccupation of the authors – namely, the titular automatic production of memory. It is this automation, in which memories are identified, ascribed certain meanings and values, and then targeted at users through technological processes that render the social media archive worthy of specific scholarly attention. […] It is clear from the outset that the authors are not indifferently curious about the answer to this question; they are troubled by the implications such a loss of agency in our human experiences of remembering.”

“These platforms perform diverse roles beyond archive – as messaging services, storefronts, news sources, and more. What does this definitional imprecision mean for our understanding of social media-as-archive? What social role do archives play, and how do social media archives adopt, emulate, or deviate from those expected roles? Does it matter if an archive is constructed as an archive from the outset or comes to occupy that role, de facto, later on? “

“But the understated acknowledgment of platforms’ commercial imperative keeps some important questions associated with algorithmically mediated memory-making and -keeping flickering on the horizon, just out of focus. It is a question prompted by the theme of this special issue, and it lingers between the lines of Social Media and the Automatic Production of Memory. How much does the memory work of platforms contribute to their longevity? To what extent are platforms-as-archives keeping platforms-as-everything-else alive by creating deeply personal, affective ties to the companies that own them? In the constellation of values perceived, created, and traded on platforms, how much is owed to the automatic processes of sense-making and how much to our own estimation of meaningfulness? How is the entanglement of social media in the preservation and interpretation of personal pasts part of their enduring power – their resistance to redundancy? “

“Jacobsen and Beer’s dense little book, though, does offer an impressively broad – if necessarily brief – insight into algorithmic processes that are subtly and pervasively intervening in the construction of our personal pasts, presents, and futures. It is host to a truly thought-provoking conversation within an abundant bibliography of essential readings on memory, archives, and datafication, and the book’s theoretical and empirical contributions to the discussion are undeniably apt. “