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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Your Life, Recalled by an App

This Is Your Life, as Recalled by an App

THE holiday season of 2011 was a hive of activity for me. One week in early December, I managed to attend a party at the Bowery Ballroom, a movie premiere and a Justin Bieber-themed dinner event. A few days later, in a single afternoon, I saw the movie “Young Adult,” bought animal-shaped glassware as Christmas gifts and shared dishes of handmade pasta with a few friends from college. And three nights after that, I attended a concert at a local music venue with a friend from Australia, then woke up the next morning and hopped on an Amtrak train to Virginia for Christmas.

I know all of this not because my memory is superhuman, or because I keep a detailed journal. My gift of meticulous recollection comes courtesy of several apps I've signed up for, including Timehop and Rewind.me. They tap into my social media history and send daily reminders of my past postings, from pictures uploaded to Instagram, the photo-sharing application, to messages on Facebook and Twitter.

At a basic level, these services serve as a cognitive crutch, excavating details about the past that I might not otherwise remember. They offer historical insight into a digital world that is in many ways ephemeral - full of constantly refreshing newsfeeds.

While social networks tell their users what is happening right now, these newer services document life of a year or more ago. They rely on a proliferation of personal data scattered around the Web and easily retrieved with the help of clever engineering and software algorithms. And they offer a rare backward glance, an anthropological perspective on our own online behavior. For example, I've noticed that last year, I was posting many photographs and disclosing personal details of my life on social networks, but that these days, I've shifted into a cooler, less intimate mode.

Danielle Morrill, founder and chief executive of Referly, a product-recommendation start-up in San Francisco, found that using Timehop, which pings her iPhone with information about how she spent her day exactly one, two, three or even five years ago, reminded her just how “powerful time can be.”

“Sometimes I'll realize I was doing the exact same thing I was doing a year ago, and I'll have to ask myself if I'm cool with that,” Ms. Morrill said. “I was grinding through work last year, and I'm still doing that now. Maybe I should think about taking a break. It makes you reflect.”

Timehop and its peers are byproducts of a time of information overload. Many of us can barely keep up with the nearly nonstop stream of news, updates and details about the world around us, let alone find time to put the past into the context of the present.

“Every social network is based in real time,” said Jonathan Wegener, one of the founders of Timehop, which was released to the public in October. “They tend to push down old information, but they don't leave space to remember it.”

Mr. Wegener has joined a small cluster of entrepreneurs looking to capitalize on a kind of Internet-era archaeology, excavating the troves of data we've left on the Web and repackaging them for our enjoyment. It's an economy betting that as much as people want to pipe details of their daily lives into the social Web as they happen, they will also want reminders on the anniversaries of those experiences - whether theirs or, in some cases, someone else's. People who sign up for Timehop, for example, can see the social-media pasts of friends who are also using the service. And if Timehop users choose to do so, they can send their memories to other social networks where friends can comment about them.

EXHUMING the past, of course, is fun only until you stumble onto something unpleasant.

In my case, a recent perusal offered photographs of a pet cat that had died, as well as pictures of an exuberant evening with a friend I no longer spend time with. Such reminders can be almost unbearably painful, or they can provide the extra nudge to send a “hello, again” e-mail.

Mr. Wegener said users often requested features that would let them block a particular person or period from appearing in their digest.

Technologically, building such filters would not be impossible, Mr. Wegener said, but he hasn't done so yet. He said the notion reminded him of the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a quirky romantic comedy in which the main characters wipe away any traces of their past relationship, and presumably, the trauma inflicted.

Such filters are “something we're considering carefully,” he said.

It's not clear whether these applications have long-term business potential. Timehop, for example, says it is focused on attracting people to its app, rather than worrying about how it will make money. The company has raised a little more than $1 million from a list of investors that includes Spark Capital and the founders of Foursquare.

Some researchers who study how people interact online say that these services are a logical evolution for social media and hold the potential for longer-term value.

For one thing, they can remind us exactly how long the “half-life of our digital footprints can be” said S. Shyam Sundar, a director of the Media Effects Research Lab at Pennsylvania State University. “People who never stopped to think that their digital postings would be archived could become more aware of their actions online.”

They could usher in a much-needed dose of reality about the permanence of the digital Web, a truth that is hard to grasp when so much of what we post online feels so ephemeral, visible for only a few seconds.

Behaving as if our digital data is fleeting can cause serious trouble, said Mr. Sundar, especially as our offline and online worlds merge. Our actions, documented through the content we share, can have very real effects on what colleges we get into, what jobs we qualify for and what people we meet.

“We have to start taking seriously the idea of social media as self-representation,” he said. “Social media is no longer just a mirror of the present, but also the past.”

A version of this article appeared in print on December 16, 2012, on page BU4 of the New York edition with the headline: This Is Your Life (Recalled By an App).

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