Me feeds (and the law of return)

Fedex_ii I got an email from FedEx this morning, one of those cheery little notes that corporations are always sending us.  It seemed to me to missing something: a list of the packages I’ve recently sent by FedEx. 

Hang on, you will say, you sent the packages.  Surely, you don’t need reminding.  Actually, I do. Increasingly, my existence is governed by the law of return, the cultural version of which reads, roughly, what does not return to me is gone forever.

At the end of the 1990s, when capitalism was in one of its manic phases, I was sent to help out as a financial services company wooed clients on a tall sailing ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. Acting as a kind of social scientist deck hand, my job was to offer the anthropologist’s view of what capital is, so to make my employer seem magnificently well informed about the world of commerce. 

It was a tall ship but not a very big ship and I was surprised to discover that we shared the deck with a camera crew who appeared to want to shoot every thing all the time.  This mystery was dispelled when at the end of every day, a magnificent and well oiled meal behind us, we were bid to sit and watch a video of the day’s proceedings. There we were on a boat watching a video of ourselves on a boat.  I mean really.

"Oh, God," I thought, "this is going to be one of those narcissistic deals where self absorption competes with self congratulation."  But in fact it turned out to be fascinating.  And I remember thinking, "so that’s what happened this morning."  Because by that time, morning seemed quite a long way away…and not just because Bacchus, god of wine, had taken us captive and ferried us a very long way away.  After a day of lively conversation and the visual feast called the Mediterranean, the morning was a distant shore, and this video message-in-a-bottle turned out to be interesting and strangely useful. I kept thinking, "so that’s what happened this morning."

I have seen the law of return in other contexts.  And it’s now become a kind of bee in my bonnet.  So that when I had the very happy opportunity to talk with a big sneeze in the newspaper world, and we fell to talking about what the newspaper of the future should look like, I found myself arguing that the custom newspaper should include "feeds on me."   (Bacchus was sitting at this table too.)

Me feeds should remind me of emails I’ve send, people I’ve met, projects I’ve started or matured, packages I’ve sent.  Mostly, I will greet this stream with the baseball-card mantra of boyhood, "got it, got it, want it, got it."  But sometimes, I’ll go "oh."   Sometimes, this data stream will be an opportunity, maybe my first opportunity, to see a pattern forming, a way my life is changing. 

Otherwise, frankly, and this may just be the cold medicine talking, life is a bit of a blur.  Unless I hear from myself from time to time, well, feelings get hurt and communication breaks down.  We have long accepted that the corporation is a scattered network of actors, agencies, projects and values.  And surely it’s time to say the individual is structurally almost precisely the same.  Scatter, once the delicious attribute of old fashioned blondes, now belongs to us all.  If this is the model for contemporary selves, me feeds are not just useful but necessary. 

And I think me feeds might be the secret utility of things like YouTube, Facebook and Flickr.  These are widely touted as ways for us to reach out and make contact with others, to build a network with the new technologies.  Thus the terms "social computing" and "social utility."  But in my experience, the fact that Facebook makes it easy for me to keep track of someone I’ve met at a conference takes it significance not so much from the fact that he and I become active penpals, but from the me feed reminder Facebook sends me a) that I have met the guy at all, 2) roughly who he is, 3) roughly where he is.  I see his status update once or twice a week streak across the bottom right hand corner of the screen and think, "oh, right, him.  Nice guy.  Oh, right, telecoms.   Oh, right,…"  A small part of the knowledge network I have in my head is illuminated.  If telecoms were the only thing I cared about, this would be redundant.  But because it is, distantly, one of many things I care about, this is a useful reminder…literally, forgive the sophomoric word play, a re-mind-er. 

The digital devices designed to help us keep track of our activities and contacts and values (Stephen Covey, etc.) all seem captive of the modernist conceit that time is an arrow and the self must be aerodynamically fashioned to keep pace with same.  To do lists and agendas are always forward looking.  Inevitably, there are traces of the past, but this software is never designed to serve this up to us.  It’s as if we see the past as completely past, what’s done is done. 

But as Baudrillard might say, directionality is over,  We are no longer heading in a single direction, not as groups, not as individuals.  In a more perfect world, the new technologies that promise to save us from the noise and confusion will do so by being a little less modern and a little more reflexive.  What we want is that electronic equivalents of the appointments secretary who has the soul of an archivist and can be relied upon to remind us about "the time you…"  What the technologies are always is giving us is "reminders" of the agenda kind when what we need is reminders of the historical kind. 

It is, in a manner of speaking, an "attention trust" issue.  As I understand it, the people who stand for this issue, say, "listen, each of us has the right to own and control the disposition of our attention on line."  And I guess I am arguing that there is a variation on this theme that says, "we need to own and control our attention to the extent that we get better at capturing and replaying a record of where that attention has been."  Otherwise, it isn’t clear that our attention belongs to us.  It just begins to fade away. 

I know that this proposal will be attacked as an instance of Lasch’s notion of a culture of narcissism.  Tom Wolfe’s "me decade" will be evoked.  So will the famous me routines by George Carlin and Robin Williams, to name just two.  But I am not arguing that me feeds are intrinsically interesting, merely that they are useful.  All this networking, all this communication node to node, the one party we sometimes neglect is our selves. 


With all due apologies to the state of Israel which has first dibs on the Law of Return.  See the Wikipedia exposition here

8 thoughts on “Me feeds (and the law of return)

  1. Ray

    Great post, with or without the cold medicine.

    What’s interesting are the artifacts that become reminders of the past. In a post-college shared house, we kept a legal pad for taking messages. Once a visitor stopped by, and noted that it was basically a diary of the house. While obviously not comprehensive, it contained fragments of the household’s lives: places to meet, people to call back, and updates of news.

    Today, telecommunications has become individualizes and less shared, where we all have our own phone numbers, email adresses, and facebook pages. The idea of having a shared landline number and the need to record message for other people is quaint. So, this phone message document has become a more or less historic one. However, today’s current counter point, (although not shared) might be two people Wall-To-Wall in Facebook, where the snippets of conversations can trail back over time.

  2. Christopher

    Interesting post. A little while ago, I finally started a tumblog. (And yes, they are as fun and easy to use as everyone says.) I thought I’d keep things in that I want. Books, clothes, etc. Just a list of purchases to be made. Entirely shallow, but sort of fun as well. I got the idea from my partner, who keeps TextEdit files that he cuts and pastes full of images and URLs of clothing and records and shoes he wants. He’s Japanese, so of course he would never make any of this information public. But I’m American, and yes Midwestern, but still comparatively without shame. So the tumblog is public. (My name isn’t on it of course, I’m not that willing to be found out as shallow.) But using tumblr — and perhaps this is my point here, it’s so easy to post to (you can post from your mobile, from the favorites bar from your web cam) that it very much does become a me feed.

  3. Eric Nehrlich

    Great post. I’m probably more extreme than most, but I’ve found my blog to be a particularly useful “me” tracker for the past five years. Every now and then, I’ll find myself re-reading old posts and going “Wait, I wrote that?!” And I have to put myself back in the frame of mind I was in, and it’s interesting to see what still resonates and what doesn’t.

    I also keep a copy of every email I have sent, going on ten years now (and I wish I could find the floppy or zip disc which has earlier email from my student days). Even without the context of the received email (although that’s often preserved in quoted form), it’s a fascinating archeological dig of what I was caring about at any point in time. I regularly review my sent emails and say “Wait, should I have heard back from this person?”

    It’s not surprising that both of these are text-based, as text is my preferred medium. Other people who are more visual achieve the same effect with Flickr streams; as you suggest, most of the value is in the jog to memory – “Oh, that person. Oh, right, we were there.”

  4. Grant McCracken

    Ray, yes, I wonder why commerce has caught up on this one and supplied an archival service of some kind: anthropologists come to our homes once a quarter, document the material culture, do the interviews, pop everything into amber, leave a copy with us, and put one on file in that really big warehouse where they keep the lost ark. Thanks, Grant

    Christopher, Great observation. I’ve signed up for Tumblr and will now have a look in earnest. Thanks for the head’s up. Thanks, Grant

    Eric, “I’ll find myself re-reading old posts and going “Wait, I wrote that?!” Yes, this is a special challenge. Often I will come upon a me fragment, a note I have scribbled to myself and I can’t make head nor tail of it. Supplying, resupplying, the assumptions, this is an anthropological challenge, and again, it’s a commercial opportunity for someone. If I found a mysterious photo, note, email, I could consult my “me print” at several layers of detail to reconstruct who I was at that moment and what I was doing. Thanks for the comment. How is California? Best, Grant

  5. Andrew Taylor

    Grant and all,

    Great discussion on the fluidity of time on the web, and our bias toward what comes NEXT rather than what came before. There are certainly a growing number of “me feed” systems — blogs, Twitter, Tumblr, Flikr among them — that are already used not only as “here I am now” or “here I’m going next” systems, but as memory systems.

    Just as many look back on their own blogs, or even Google search themselves that way, to recall what they said/thought/felt. It’s interesting to me how so much of this current “me stream” is based on action rather than reflection: “I’m in a cab,” “I’m going to the party tonight,” “just had coffee with Bob.” I imagine the inevitable evolution will move toward introspection and reflection (at least for some).

    Then, we will have both individual maps of our emotional past, as well as aggregated visions of how lots of people feel in a certain time or space, much like the current biomaps already being explored:

  6. James

    Great post, Grant (echo). I don’t have too much to add but one concrete example that makes me happy. I use Google Reader to manage the inbound feeds. One of the great features is that you can set it to just display new stuff, or you can set it to display all the stuff from your subscriptions, going back to the day you subscribed.

    To me, this means I have to manage my archive less since I can always access the old stuff through the specific feed or through search. It become a personal archive of readings.

    That’s just one small slice of my archive. But Google is best positioned to make the other piece available too. My calendar? Google Calendar. Email? Analytics? All Google too. So they could pretty easily (+docs, +blog posts, +talk, +toolbar, +desktop search, etc.) become the personal archivist. Their mission, after all, is to organize and make universally available the world’s information. My contribution to that information is just one slice.

  7. Jim

    As many other parents have done, I was keen to video my kids. After filming I would show them the video. However starting at about age 3or 4 the kids wanted to see what was filmed – as it was being filmed. Of course this erased the moment and I have almost no video since that time.

    Late to the party, I got a digital camera last year. Now it is not just the kids, but almost everyone who wants to see the picture as soon as it is taken. Adults to see if they are acceptable, or if the moment has been captured acceptably, kids simply to enjoy it. The spontaneity of photos is very different today.

    In many tourist areas it seems that the capturing of the moment is more important than the moment itself.

  8. Anonymous

    Interesting. From the time my daughter could talk (almost 3 now) she has ended each day before she goes to sleep with “tell me about my day”.. whereupon which i give her a brief recounting of what she did that day. She loves it, and picks an event or two that had some particular significance to her to ask questions about. Maybe this is also the motivation behind photo albums and home movies. About time it gets digital.

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