“A Look Back” by Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook Team

Screen Capture from "A Look Back" by Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook Team. A video player with a centered text in white with the Facebook Logo. Text: "A Look Back".
Open “A Look Back” by Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook Team

On Tuesday, February 4, 2013, Facebook released a generated video titled “A Look Back” to commemorate their 10th anniversary.

A Look Back is an experience that compiles your highlights since joining Facebook. Depending on how long you’ve been on Facebook and how much you’ve shared, you’ll see a movie, a collection of photos or a thank you card (link).

For those who have share plenty, this work assembles images and status updates from your Facebook feed and arranges them to be displayed on a video template that organizes them into several topics, to be described below. One could see this generated movie is a kind of Hallmark ecard from Facebook to you, designed to please you with pretty music and images you’re most likely to enjoy. And at that level, the work is a likeable bauble, as enjoyable and forgettable as a well chosen greeting card or something you’ve “liked” on Facebook. But part of its interest is in how effectively Facebook is able to use its metadata to mine its user’s database and generate a a surprisingly effective customized experience that could be considered an unexpected e-poem.The video starts with the title (depicted above) and zooms back (Prezi style) to reveal it was a tile in a grid composed of photos you have uploaded to Facebook, as if to metaphorically place itself as one component of your life. During its one minute and two second duration, the video progresses through a sequence of images organized into four sections– Your First Moments, Your Most Liked Posts, and Photos You’ve Shared– all using a variety of transitions (zooms, pans, wipes) that evoke a left-to-right, top-to-bottom traversal of a scrapbook, but a digital one. After showing your first profile picture over the tiled images, Your First Moments shows three photos over a blank background, slowly enlarging as if they’re emerging from oblivion back into your awareness. The next section offers your four most liked posts (textual or images) over an enlarged blurred copy of the image being showed along with captions and current “like” data and they seem to slowly fall back, as if these moments are going back to forgetfulness. The last section shows nine Photos You’ve Shared zooming forward from a blurred grid of photos in perfect synchrony with the music, the grid reminding us of the many more pictures we have shared. Finally, the sequence zooms away from your current profile picture at the center of a photo grid, ending with the thumbs up “like” symbol.

The musical score seems to be a version of a portion from “The Riddim” by Robs and Duke (here’s the Original Mix) that sheds its electronic origins in favor of a more nostalgic orchestral version. Considering that the Robs and Duke album has such a future-focused title, Dawn of a New Era, one has to wonder they intended that meaning as an Easter egg to be discovered by someone using a music-identifying service, such as Shazam. After completing its first decade, this social network is paying tribute to the past in a form that is both familiar and innovative: recognizably comfortable (as an ecard, slideshow, or video) while mining the user’s account for materials and metadata.

It is this generative aspect where the interest of this piece lies because the work relies on two primary bits of metadata: timestamp and “like” statistics. How is Facebook going to select from among all the material you’ve shared over the years and choose items you’ll enjoy? Think about it: the first few pictures are there to remind you of your first days on Facebook, the ones most distant to the present and therefore the most nostalgia-inducing. The most liked posts, whether textual or photographic, are selected by a simple method– the highest number of “likes” received for these. And this is a key strategy because the positivity of the Facebook “like” is a powerful filter. People may sympathize with tragedy, illness, or the death of close ones, and even comment extensively, but they won’t really “like” that material. This video is really about the power of Facebook’s “like” as a minimalist content curation tool, because it effectively crowdsources and attaches emotional value to all the things we share.

So whether you get the purely generated version or edit it (the option has suddenly become available as I write this entry), Facebook only allows you to choose material within the parameters described. Anything else might not fit the tone and more importantly, the goal of this piece: to make us all feel good about sharing our lives on Facebook. If you seek a more subversive use of Facebook data, you might want to check out “What Would I Say?,” which offers you a distorted reflection of your own status updates.

That being said, “A Look Back” is Facebook’s first public work of database cinema and its first serious attempt to do something with your data beyond interface design and advertising, which is to be applauded. And the results are surprisingly moving, judging from my own and my friends pleased reactions as they shared their videos.

And in the spirit of sharing, here’s my “look back” video. I hope you like it.