The Right to Fair Recollection

Social media platforms and applications are using opaque algorithms to monetize our past memories. It’s time to hold them accountable.

Business people are using innovative technology. Mixed media, digital smartphone and online shopping concept. ©ker_vii/shutterstock.com

June 02, 2022 01:53 EDT

One year from now, most of us will not be interested in seeing the painful memories of burnt buildings and lines of refugees in the Ukraine war surfacing on the newsfeed. By contrast, probably some might be curious, in experiencing these memories, to compare how the situation has changed and evolved. The tricky part of this recollection process is that the final decision will be made on behalf of all of us by opaque algorithms that could be utilized to increase engagement and profit and not to improve the healthy relationship with our past. 

In the past few years, several social media platforms and web applications have started to build features that let the users interact with their online memories, tapping into the power of artificial intelligence algorithms to automate the whole process. These authoritative algorithms need to be challenged and subjected to public oversight.

How Social Media Platforms Handle Our Memories

Meta, formerly known as Facebook, has two applications through which users can access their past memories on its platforms. The “Year in Review” features the important events for the year in one album. This feature was a subject of criticism after it displayed a photo of a deceased daughter to her father, leading Facebook to issue an apology statement. The other application is “on this day” that, as the name suggests, automatically selects a memory from the past and presents it to the user. 

Timehop is an application, introduced in 2017, that automates memories recollection across social media platforms. According to the application website, it has been downloaded by 20 million users. The application offers its subscribers the right to delete their personal data on it and to know what information has been collected, but it doesn’t allow them to understand how their algorithm functions and operates. 

Other platforms, such as Amazon and YouTube, seem merely interested in giving us a static view of our past interactions on them. For example, Amazon’s “buy again” feature is directly shared and presented without any alteration or automation. 

The Pre-automated Memory Recollection

In the world of pre-automated memory recollection, we encounter our past experiences in a natural way. For example, we may create them when we stumble upon old pictures and videos, or engage in random conversations with family and friends. Or while we are reading old personal notes, celebrating anniversaries, or passing by buildings we used to live, study or work in, or when we are listening to songs associated with pleasant experiences or sad memories of breakups. These experiences are deeply interwoven into the fabric of reality. We always interact with them and handle them in a fundamentally humane way when they are evoked. Platforms such as Facebook and Timehop are now acting as an intermediary between ourselves and our past, and  are continually shaping how we think and reason about our genuinely lived experiences, and hence how we live our lives. 

Researchers who studied the automation of memories by social media found that the metrics used to quantify memory recollections, such as “likes,” could also be used by the platforms to increase engagement. They could also become a source of competition and comparison between users. All this clearly shows the extent to which platform creators are not transparent about the real goal of the memory feature and the damage they cause to our connection with the past as they monetize our engagement. 

The Right to Fair Recollection

Lawmakers should work to introduce the right to fair recollection. That means changing the current paradigm of memory-creation, rather than having algorithm designers dictate surreptitiously how the system works, the users should be the ones who manage the whole process. This will be achieved by allowing the users to decide on stopping the feature, blocking memories associated with certain persons, events and time, and avoiding categorization of memories. Lawmakers should also ensure that users can at anytime pull out and merge their online memories, distributed across applications and platforms, in order to form a unified access to our past, and access and tweak the factors that the algorithms depend on for the memories making. This approach will also give each of us a unique individual experience to the past memories instead of the current limited one-size-fits-all model. 

Currently, some social media platforms and applications involuntarily give their users part of this right, for example,The ThrowBack application lets its users choose both the photo and a return date of the recollection without any intervention from the system. Snapchat’s flashback feature automates photos shared on the same day in the past. It gives users the option to choose from many photos shared on that day. This model  gives the application partial control of the recollection process by listing what photos the users may choose from. In this model, users could be seen as co-creators. Facebook memory allows users to block memories associated with certain dates and persons, as well as to choose how often users would like to see notifications about memories. But the algorithms that run the whole process and select particular memories over others remain a black box. 

It’s legitimate to argue the shift to give users the full control over the recollection process will be complex for many, especially those who are not tech savvy, but this should change over time as the model becomes widely accepted and shared in society. 

Our perception of the past contributes in a major way to our entire makeup. Having the right to protect ourselves against the downside of the automation and commercialization of our past experiences is definitely a step worth taking and it should be defended by everyone. 

(This article was edited by Senior Editor Francesca Julia Zucchelli.)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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