Brooklyn Beta was a most memorable web conference. It can be relived through peoples’ stories, anecdotes, images and more, which are strewn far and wide across the web. Although not altogether typical, the quantity of data created around this event demonstrates the ruthless efficiency with which we record moments that matter to us.
We’ve never recorded so much in so many ways. In theory, the delight in rediscovery should be richer than ever before. However, given the complexity involved in these recordings, not least of which are the multiple sites, devices, formats we use, will our online recordings still be there in years to come? Decisions users make and actions designers take now could decide how easy it will be to relive memories with the richness we recorded them.
Living in the here and now
We’ve become intensely focused on the here and now. The single point in time or update in a our ‘lifestream’. So fastidious are we at updating, checking-in and tweeting, that our recordings become instantly submerged in a sea of updates. With this focus on the here and now, there’s an acceptance that in leaving a site, the rich recordings we’ve spent time building there are lost. Without these recordings, we rely on our own memory. I was recently reminded, proving the point, that our memories don’t serve us well. In fact they’re often wrong as Susan Weinschenk’s highlights in ‘100 Things you should know about memory - Your most vivid memories are wrong’. The human mind is good at piecing together memories to form a picture of an event. The web is still learning how to collate in this way. The mind is poor at remembering detail. So, what we can’t remember, our mind sometimes make up and fills in the gaps. The web can support this human frailty by being the place to hold the detail to accurately remind us later. For this to happen, we need to be able to find the detail in years to come as memories fade.
This wonderful story from This American Life beautifully demonstrates the creative license our mind can take.
The delight in rediscovery
We’ve always compensated for the inefficiency of our memory. From the first cave paintings or stories to photo’s, we record to help us remember and share. What has changed in this digital age is the sheer quantity of data being recorded. Whereas before, only the important events were recorded, such was the overhead in recording. Take for example portrait paintings, which was time consuming and a luxury of the rich. Now we record even the most mundane with infinite ease. Recordings of an event happen in multiple places, formats and ways across the web, whereas before there was a single recording of an event held in one place. We’re industrious like never before. Blogging and publishing on our own and others people’s sites. An intricate and intelligent web of data is quickly created around a place, opinion, moment or event.
As with any recording, there’s delight in rediscovery. As our memory falters overtime, the value of the recording grows. So focused are we on the here and now, that we seldom think that far ahead. An additional benefits of all this recording is that it compensates for yet another human frailty. We’re poor at knowing how important moments are when they happen! Retrospectively, it’s clear that some events that seemed minor at the time prove to be very important. Scott Berkun calls this ‘The Impact Ratio’. He defines it as the relationship between your perception of the importance of something, and how it turns out to be a year or ten years later. Because we capture more moments, chances are, even as our priority changes, the ones we considered minor are recorded nevertheless.
In his 2004 book ‘Emotional Design' Donald Norman put forward the design challenge facing photography in a digital age, which remains today: “The design challenge is to keep the virtues while removing the barriers; make it easier to store, send and share. Make it easy to find just the desired pictures years after they have been taken and put into storage”.
Technological changes herald new behaviors and possibilities. Storing, sending and sharing has never been easier. With these changes have come further challenges. There is an increasing time overhead in managing our recordings. Norman highlights that ‘although we like to look at photographs, we don’t have or take the time to maintain them and keep them accessible’. How do we reconcile managing our recordings with this lack of time. A conflict exacerbated by the increasing complexity of our recordings; multiple sites, devices, formats to name but a few.
As web designers and developers, there’s a lot we can do to increase the likelihood of peoples data being useful in the future. We can start by allowing people to control and reuse their data. There’s also the person’s data on other sites and how easy we make importing it. The web industry is still finding the right balance between open and closed data. Moving objects or recordings from one site to another is becoming more common. There are good examples, like moving bookmarks from Delicious to Pinboard. However, there are even more examples, where it’s either done badly or not at all.
There’s been a continued focus on privacy on the web, reflecting people’s concerns. Although still complicated, the issue of privacy is becoming better understood. People’s trusted is increasing. Portability of people’s data is next on the agenda. While there’s a focus on recording the here and now, people are rightly asking what will happen with all the stuff their creating?
Some sites take with them the artifacts of people’s memories, when they go. Other sites make data portable ensuring people can take their memories with them. Sites like Facebook, make it difficult to leave with your belongings. Others like Delicious adopt an ‘open’ approach by make it easier to leave with what’s yours. Companies using this open approach recognize that allowing people to easily leave a site is actually good for business. Their confidence allows them to put what matters to users above worries over competition and they’re prospering.
As web folk, we must not overlook the opportunity to make people’s data easy to find and use in the future. It’s the right thing to do and here are some suggestions to help:
- Support authentication using people’s existing online identities rather than having them create yet another.
- Think about data portability form the start.
- Make people’s data available to export.
- Be smart about how data is reused, for example, provide full geolocation meta data with items like photos.
- Let people import data from other sites that are open.
- Allow people to back up their stuff.
- Remind people using the site of what they can do with their data. Data portability isn’t an expectation yet.
Finally, let people easily close their accounts and take their stuff. You never know when they’ll be back. Making it difficult to leave a site just makes it unlikely that people will return. For more of making data portable, check out the Data Portability
There are old school business strategies, which in the absence of new ones, the web has adopted. As the web hits 2 billion users, concepts like ‘walled garden’ sites and protectionist strategies need replacing with more web appropriate ones. Business decisions, which can be invisible to users, are fundamental to what happens to the data we entrust with sites. Thankfully, these old school strategies are changing. More sites are letting people know what they can do with their stuff when they leave. All sites used to ignored this important part of the customer lifecycle, focusing instead on acquisition and retention only. The web needs more web specific business strategies and ideas. For example, am I the only one who’d pay a premium to have the most important memories protected?
Memories live on
I can’t imaging how my young daughters will use the web when they grow up. I’d like to relive events in my life with them, which I’ve been recording online. I hope these memories will be there to find and share in the future.
For this to happen, we need to consider people’s data during the design and development of sites. The web needs to rid itself of the old and embrace the new business strategies. Most of all, we need what the web has in abundance, lots of creative thinking.
It’s already started and will continue in the spirit it has begun - with openness and honesty. In this spirit, the things we hold precious - our memories - will live one.
Here are some links to help:
Ways to archive your online accounts.
Facebook - https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/13993/
Tumblr - http://www.downloadsquad.com/2010/03/28/backup-tool-for-tumblr-blogs-available-in-beta-for-mac-users/
Free tools to backup your online accounts.
The data Portability Project works to advance data portability.
Never forget a password again with 1Password.
Automatically save everything that’s important on your computer.
iPhone back up
If you want to manually create an iPhone backup.
Online backup guides
Online backup resource with reviews for online backup.
Screenshot a page
Take an image of a webpage.
Save an entire site
Coming soon. A novel way to grab the entire contents of a site and saves it in one place.