Real Life: Time After Time
First published at Real Life
Two candlelit faces look at me over bowls of pulpy tomatoes and pepper-flecked soups. They both look a certain kind of rich, the kind that unashamedly buys $180 “wellness products” from Goop. It’s nighttime in this picture, but a flick of the thumb reverts me back to day: a buttery white room bleached by sunlight, an aerial view of a flat white, some hard-to-source magazines. Flick further still and I’m back to nighttime — Saturday night, in fact — at a Brooklyn basement poetry reading, where a fledgling poet silently spills words to an unseen audience.
On our social media feeds we slip, frictionless, through time. Saturday is next to Tuesday is next to #tbt 2014. Where once chronology was king, now our feeds are mostly algorithmic timelines. Determined by prior clicks and likes, eager-to-please strings of code create custom feeds based on our preferences. It’s a boon for social media companies: We stick around longer on algorithmic timelines, engaging with more content and encountering more revenue-generating ads. Many users, however, claim to hate it.
On Twitter, which moved over from chronology to algo-time last year, a process of collective mourning began under the hashtag #RIPTwitter. Only marginally less end-of-days, one TechCrunch author declared Instagram’s algorithmic feed to be “the worst thing to happen to me all summer.” Reasons for vitriol were varied, from the pragmatic to the abstract. Some users felt that the loss of temporal ordering also meant a loss of personal control. As actor Rob Lowe tweeted, “One of the great rewards of being an adult is deciding ON YOUR OWN who (and what) you should be interested in.” “No revisionist history for me,” another user tweeted, suggesting a concern for digital memory. Events and live-tweets would become harder to follow; the spontaneity of random, seemingly uncalculated juxtaposition would be lost. The anger was often tinted by nostalgia: Users begged for the old ways to remain, seemingly at a loss to imagine a world without the reassuring comfort of chronologically organized data.