The web is undoing our capacity to forget

I’ve long had an aversion to our industry’s predilection for the term “viral”. Using such a word to describe content or ideas that spread implies that the process is a passive one. That a piece of content can be so good, or a brand so well loved, that it becomes contagious, spreading among populations as might a flu epidemic, only requiring proximity to jump from one person to another. This kind of terminology serves only to encourage lazy thinking. The reality behind the spread of content is of course very different. Passing stuff on to our friends is an active process requiring decision and judgement. It is a conscious, deliberate act.

Or at least, it had been until now. The Facebook redesign announced at F8 recently introduced us to so-called “frictionless sharing”. In contrast to the manual process of tagging, tweeting, clicking a Like button or checking-in, the sharing of what we are listening to, reading or watching is now ever more likely to become automatic. It has, in the words of media commentator Jeff Sonderman, changed the definition of “sharing” on the social web: “It’s the difference between telling a friend about something that happened to you today and opening your entire diary.”

In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting In The Digital Age, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger talks about how the digital age is one of perfect remembering. What was once lost, forgotten and discarded, is now crawled, cached, archived, traceable and attributable. Perfect digital remembering has profound implications not only because things that are sometimes best forgotten can be recalled, but because it challenges some very human norms: remembering has always been hard, now its easy; forgetting has always been the biological default, now remembering is the default. The web is undoing our capacity to forget. The point about frictionless sharing is that it too, changes the default.

So called “Zuckerberg’s Law”, the idea that the amount of stuff we share roughly doubles every year, is increasingly enabled by new technologies. The Programmable Web Directory, which records and categorises all known web APIs, announced recently that it now lists over 4,000 APIs, a number which is growing exponentially every year, creating an ever more interconnected network of services and apps that make the rapid distribution of information ever more seamless.

When The New York Times recently published a study on the “Psychology of Sharing”, it concluded that we are motivated to share content and ideas in order to define ourselves to others, to grow and nourish relationships and to get the word out about causes or brands we like or believe in.To paraphrase Charles Leadbetter, we are what we share.The fact that a piece of content is deliberately selected, judged, commented on and passed on by one of my friends or someone I follow attributes a certain significance and context to it. It’s a significance that I cherish. Social curation has come to sit alongside algorithmic and professional curation as a valuable way to distinguish signal from noise.

So while frictionless sharing may well become the norm for future generations, in the headlong rush toward ubiquity, perhaps we should pause to reflect on just what we are in danger of losing. Sometimes, a bit of friction is a good thing.

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Published 18 October, 2011 by NMA Staff

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