Select Page

“The next wave of digital products won’t just be about archiving the web; they’ll be about destroying the archive.”
Megan Garber: ‘Making The Internet More Like Our Brains

on forgettingThe modern web is almost exclusively predicated on algorithmic search. It’s a vast archive of everything that has ever been, or will ever be in the world, and knowledge increasingly lives and breathes on the web. As a result, the web is really good at remembering things. The process of perpetual recollection is, in many ways, what the web is built upon; to the point where many of us now use Google as an outboard brain. We no longer have to remember things, we just need to remember how to find them.

The recent launch of Google’s knowledge graph, an ambitious attempt to document the interwoven relationships between all ‘things’ in the world (not just information about them), is an interesting competitive play against Facebook’s social graph, which similarly plots the relationships between people.



Why are graphs important? Because they are of specific interest to advertisers – those who fund the web. Graph-driven software development is already a multi-billion dollar industry, because it allows advertisers to reach their intended audiences in more powerful, targeted, and potentially effective ways. Owning the data on the relationships between things in the world is an incredibly powerful position to monetize.

 But what if there was a memory graph?

While it’s true that our brains already serve as our built-in memory graphs, the power of memory is ultimately in remembering, or being reminded of things long gone in our lives. In some respects, this reflects the faux-nostalgia that an app such as Instagram taps into. In an era where documentation and data is everything, forgetting (or opting-out of remembering) is becoming a powerful proposition. Building products that are deliberately ephemeral, which force us to forget, then remind us later (as in the case of the beautiful Timehop service), are fast becoming a way to circumvent the need to document everything.

If the ability to forget on the web is becoming scarcer, then it begins to move towards becoming more of a sought-after, luxury item, and more reflective of how we actually  interact as people, rather than conforming to the unnatural behavior often imposed upon us by the web. As the internet grows up, it’s starting to behave more like us.

We’re already starting to see some embryonic, if trivial, versions of this idea surface in the app store. Snapchat, a lightweight photo-sharing app, applies a time limit to what you can share with friends. Think Instagram with a built-in viewing expiration of 2 seconds. While it reduces the fear of photos being seen by the wrong people, as Nick Bilton, writing in The New York Times suggests, one of the obvious applications for such a service is sexting:

 “People once took photographs so they could capture a moment for themselves and keep it forever. Then digital cameras and cellphones turned photos into something more ephemeral and more easily shared. But as the case of Anthony Weiner demonstrated, photos that are shared but are not meant to last, sometimes stick around.”

Nick Bilton: ‘Disruptions: Indiscreet Photos, Glimpsed The Gone

As Bilton explains, The Pew Research Center’s ‘Internet and American Life’ Project has discovered that at least 6% of Americans have sent ‘sexually suggestive, nude or nearly nude photos or video using a cellphone’. By contrast, 15% report having received it. There’s definitely a market for it. Snapchat’s photos expire after a maximum of ten seconds, and the sender is notified if the recipient attempts to circumvent the service by, for example, taking a screenshot. While there’s obviously a multitude of ways to also capture the image before it expires, once media becomes created and shared, it’s increasingly difficult to forget it, sometimes with disruptive implications. Many have questioned if the images remain stored on Snapchat’s servers, or truly get deleted. But in many ways, people are experiencing their own lives through the social validation the web now offers. A moment unshared is often a momentunrealized. If you didn’t share the photos of that incredible sunset, did it really happen? Baudrillard  and Benjamin would have fun exploring this of course. And as the well-documented trend of digital attention deficits continues to climb, the power of remembering is under increasing scrutiny. Simply put, it’s getting harder and harder to remember things ourselves.

 “What motivates teens is what motivates anyone who does this: You want to be in a relationship, you want to be desired, you want to be cool, or wild. Solving the problem is always a bit of an arms race; we have technology that allows us to do something, then we have to create technology to help protect it.”

Amanda Lenhart, Pew Research, ‘Disruptions: Indiscreet Photos, Glimpsed The Gone

Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber describes how the ‘Save All’ feature is a defining characteristic of the modern web, where the archive is now simply assumed. Almost all web-related products built so far are predicated upon harnessing the power of the database, of memory, instead of forgetting. She describes how the internet is often characterized as a dynamic, fast-moving stream, with no containers, and the beautiful, free-flow of ideas and information, but contrasts it with how we actually behave as humans. We wake, we sleep, and have defined beginnings and endings. The conflict between these two ideas creates an increasingly obvious cognitive dissonance, and leads to the pressure that many of us feel, especially with social media, that we’re somehow ‘missing out’ on something when untethered from our digital umbilical. Importantly, Garber proposes that the web’s capacities and our own abilities are misaligned – we are defined by selective memories, the web never forgets. We sleep, the web never rests.

 “We become cavalier about preservation, not just because Google serves as an outboard brain, but because we are conditioned to assume that the stuff we care about will automatically stick around.”

Megan Garber: ‘Forget About It: Making The Internet More Like Our Brains

There’s a few interesting variations on this idea, notably those who suffer from hyperthymesia, the condition of superior autobiographical memory.  Hyperthymesiacs have an exceptionally accurate recall of all personal events in their lives. They are able to tell you what they were doing, with great precision, on any date thus far in their lives. It’s an incredible phenomenon, and in many ways, one that baffles modern medicine, one that we’re only just beginning to understand as cerebral scanning technology slowly improves. However, those diagnosed often describe their limitless memories as huge burdens in their lives, ones that are ‘non-stop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting’. The power of near-perfect recall doesn’t make people smarter, it simply makes them miserable.



In arguing against the perpetual documentation and recall of the modern web, many are beginning to argue that there’s increasing value in reclaiming the productive limitations of theanalog world. It’s often referred to simply as ‘retro’, and aligns itself with ‘cool’ quite neatly. But if luxury products are built around economic scarcity in eras of tremendous abundance, ephemerality as a service and end in itself, leverages and reflects what our brains are already optimized and conditioned to do– toexperience, to forget, to remember, and then to forget again. Memories are in the DNA of what it feels like to own a home, for example. Creating experiences that go beyond simple nostalgia, but that work with massaging the data in ways that force us to forget, are an interesting direction for building out unexpected, serendipitous digital experiences for customers.

This is emerging as a point of legal contention in recent months as well, with the European Commission’s proposal to add the ‘right to be forgotten‘ to its existing privacy laws. This conversation has yet to cross the Atlantic ocean, where The Library of Congress still archives all of our tweets.

Recent updates from Google, as they move towards a more seamless, integrated user experience across all of their services as part of their Google+ initiative, have begun to leverage your history as a Google user across all of their services, together. It allows Google to oversee (and serve advertising upon) your behavior across their entire suite of products, and see you as a Google user, rather than just a GMail user for example. If you were to search for real estate on Google, it would surface real estate advertising for you in YouTube, even though your experience of using both services might be entirely separate, on different days. Many opted out of this initiative when it was communicated to them, deliberately pruning their own digital history as a way of asserting their right to privacy.


Indeed, the importance to many of opting out of data collection, specifically that which repackages and re-presents your own behavior back to you as targeted advertising, is one that’s increasingly important to online users. Facebook and Google, through the medium of advertising, are deciding and leveraging what we choose to remember, and selling it to advertisers. No big news there– this is a well-worn model. However, the European Union now asserts rights that individuals can ask Google to take down links to either unflattering or unwelcome stories, a right soon to become legally enforceable (potentially, pending 2014 EU Parlimentary approval) in 27 different countries under the data protection act. It’s still unclear if that will stop the collection though. However, do internet users really bear an innate ‘right to be forgotten?’ Many of us unknowingly opt-in to data collection, and when it comes to our use of the modern web, especially when it comes to liking, commenting, ratings and reviews, even outside of just simply browsing history, our online footprint is often cast wider than we can remember, or even manage.


“I want to explicitly clarify that people shall have the right – and not only the ‘possibility’ – to withdraw their consent to the processing of the personal data they have given out themselves. The Internet has an almost unlimited search and memory capacity. So even tiny scraps of personal information can have a huge impact, even years after they were shared or made public. The right to be forgotten will build on already existing rules to better cope with privacy risks online.”

Viviane Reding, Vice President Of The European Commission & European Union Justice Commissioner

Digital Life Conference, Munich, January 22nd 2012

Quoted In John Hendel: ‘Why Journalists Shouldn’t Fear Europe’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten’

The European Union’s concerns over the privacy and protection of individuals acts as an interesting counterbalance to the guardianship of free expression under the First Amendment. While the EU currently supports (and is writing legislation to protect) the right to privacy, it’s a much more complex issue here in America, inciting a fascinating digital conflict betweenthe right to be forgotten and the freedom of the press. And while the conversation continues to be a moving target, an interesting development is that these discussions now include not only digital references, but also personal data (people have) given out about themselves, often unwittingly.


“It is clear that the right to be forgotten cannot amount to a right of the total erasure of history. Neither must the right to be forgotten take precedence over freedom of expression or freedom of the media.”

Padraig Reidy, The Guardian

Quoted In John Hendel: ‘Why Journalists Shouldn’t Fear Europe’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten”


This development begins to appease freedom of speech advocates, but places more and more emphasis on the consent of the individual in using those respective platforms. Reading the terms of service becomes increasingly important, and the key issue is not that a free internet isn’t important, but that the assertion of the rights of the creators of content, whatever they produce online, also have to be preserved.

Data collection with the express goal of targeted advertising, has been the cornerstone of how the web has monetized itself since its inception. However, as Alexis Madrigal skillfully points out, data from a single visit to The New York Times homepage is sent to over 10 different companies, including Microsoft and Google, who all log your visit, and subsequently display ads specifically geared towards your tastes and interests.

 “Every move you make on the internet is worth some tiny amount to someone, and a panoply of companies want to make sure that no step along your internet journey goes unmonetized.”

Alexis Madrigal: ‘I’m Being Followed

Indeed, never before in our history has so much data been collected for the sole purpose of showing us advertising. Facebook’s recent move into the area of retargeted ads (collecting data about what we do when we’re not on Facebook, and then showing us ads on their own site based on how we use the web) is one that leverages an old idea in conventional display advertising, but adds a social, auction-based layer on top. Advocates argue that more targeted advertising is giving the user a better sense of what they want. Is serving up a more personalized web a bad thing anyway? Serving up content that’s more relevant to their interests, a better use of the advertisers’ budgets, but as Jeff Hammerbacher infamously pointed out, perhaps there are bigger problems to solve:

 “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Jeff Hammerbacher, Quoted In Ashlee Vance: ‘This Tech Bubble Is Different

As Madrigal explores, there are now huge chunks of what we’ve looked at on the web sitting in databases around the world. Data that many of us have yet to take control of, but data that’s being collected and traded about us, in ways that cause us to perceive the real world differently, through the lens of digital media. These processes cause friction between our digital and physical selves, under the perhaps misguided premise of convergence and customer service. However, the idea is that the more relevant advertising is, the better it serves the customer; and the use of behavioral, demographic, geographic, and what’s referred to as ‘lookalike’ targeting (serving up ads based on other users similar to you), all wrapped around social proximity (especially in mobile), allows advertisers to buy the audience without even targeting their desired sites at all. For example, if you were interested in targeting Zillow users in your area, instead of running ads on Zillow, you could run thousands of ads (often at a fraction of the price) that appeared in front of Zillow users when they’re NOT on Zillow. This is what fuels the retargeting process– showing ads to people who browse, but don’t ultimately buy, when they’re away from your site. It’s powerful stuff, and one that many in the real estate industry have yet to tap into.

Many are uncomfortable with the premise of retargeting, perhaps for obvious intrusion reasons. However, is regulation even possible in order for us to understand where our own behavioral data is stored and being used? Self-regulation, certainly in its current form, only limits data collection, it doesn’t stop it. Could such a ‘Consumer Privacy Bill Of Rights,’ as many privacy advocates propose, allow us to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from us, and how they are able to use it?  Perhaps, and the current compromise seems to be opting-out of using the data for ads, instead of stopping the process of collection itself. However, the notion that when we use the web we leave so many digital markers of identity behind us, often without consent, means that data collection organizations are more and more transforming the web into a place where people are becoming anonymous in name only. We may not be giving up our names under the illusion of anonymity, but there’s a tremendous amount of profile-driven information being collected about us without that one small piece of identity data, especially in the era of Facebook’s frictionless sharing. Frictionless in this context, means easier to collect, store and monetize, not easier to share.

Madrigal goes further, suggesting that the idea of the ‘persistence of user information’, the false reliance upon a machine’s inability to truly know our preferences, or simply to ‘know too much’ is increasingly a concern amongst digital users.  It’s very much a Catch-22 scenario, as in order to keep the internet healthy, it is absolutely imperative that it remains funded by advertising. The buying and selling of digital media offsets the production of content, especially at scale. As many newspaper organizations are finding, a transition to the web, underfunded by advertising as the bottom falls out of the display and classified markets, is a tough challenge in a depressed economy. Advertisers want their dollars to work harder and smarter for them, which means specific targeting at low cost, for large inventory, becomes the goal of all budget allocation. This is one of the key competitive advantages that Facebook has eroded from Google’s Adwords product. Being able to reach users targeted by interest and connections (using the social graph), rather than simply just ‘I am searching for…’ is a powerful proposition, especially in an era where over 100,000 years are spent on the platform each month by Americans alone. Not only are the users on the site, they can all be reached, at low cost. Profile information is what advertisers want access to.

Are there natural limits to data targeting? At what point does it become ineffective because it’s simply too overt? Can it be gamed? One alternative approach employed by marketers are those who buy into the idea that truly powerful advertising leverages the impact of the unexpected experience. In many ways this is’anti-targeting’– serving up ads so unique and unexpected that they actually have more stopping power than a highly targeted ad. It’s a delicate balance, but one that’s reflected in how videos are distributed online (essentially a core component of how something asserts itself as ‘viral’), and an idea central to what makes something shareable. As advertising becomes more social as the web moves away from pages and more towards conversations between people, a shareable, unexpected ad, is often more powerful than a highly targeted one that’s supposed to be clicked on. This causes enormous disruption for existing referral traffic models, and is essentially why driving traffic back to your own site in a hub and spoke-style approach, is increasingly broken.

To return to the premise of the power of forgetting, Jonah Lehrer’s excellent analysis in’The Forgetting Pill,’ explores the idea of how specific parts of the brain can be targeted, just like advertising, in order to remove memories. Sound like science fiction? It’s not. Research into how people recover from trauma finds that specific areas of the brain trigger electrical and chemical activity during the process of remembering an event– connecting paths in the brain on an as-needed basis. Traditional treatment proposes that ‘people who survive a painful event should express their feelings soon afterwards, so that the memory isn’t ‘sealed over’ or repressed, which leads to post-traumatic stress disorder’. As Lehrer explains, post-traumatic stress disorder is a disease of memory. It’s the inability to forget trauma, and modern medicine is finding that simply ‘talking it out’ as a form of debriefing, often misguidedly reinforces that sense of fear and discomfort.

As a series of ever-changing pathways in the brain, memory is inherently inauthentic – it never stays the same over time. Even the act of remembering is now being found to change ever time, based on the present moment and the act of recall itself:

“Whenever the brain wants to retain something, it relies on just a handful of chemicals. Even more startling, an equally small family of compounds could turn out to be a universal eraser of history, a pill that we could take whenever we wanted to forget anything.”

Jonah Lehrer: ‘The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever

It’s a powerful idea. What if memory, and the act of remembering, was a choice?

Memories are not formed and maintained (or archived) in the brain, as we often think they are, but formed and then rebuilt in the present, each time they’re accessed. As a result, they change based on our current physical and psychological make-up. For example, we might remember an early birthday party we had as a child, but if we’re doing this around lunchtime, our memories skew more towards what food was served at the party. Perhaps how we blew out the candles on the giant cake. The brain’s network of cells is constantly being constructed, reconsolidated, rewritten andremade. It’s not the fixed thing we assume it to be, and it’s not finite. It’s fluid. As a result, recollection, just like online sharing, becomes highly ephemeral, to the point where chemicals that inhibit connections between neurons, and interfere with how memories are recalled, are now beginning to be developed. Studies performed showed that rats forgot what they’d been forced to remember (a path through a maze for example), while under the specific influence of a neural protein inhibitor.

The notion that we can target the exact chemical connections in the brain that force these memories to be recalled, is a terrifying notion for many, but one perhaps that has widespread benefits. For example, it has obvious applications for drug abuse – addiction is essentially driven by memory (the association remembered with a ‘high’), and such treatment could begin to weaken those kinds of neural associations driven by previous, compulsive behavior patterns.

The power of remembering, especially for advertisers and marketers, is incredibly important, and already a multi-billion dollar industry. Nostalgia and memories are at the core of what it feels like to own a home. As these two processes not only converge, but become malleable based on the use of targeted data, what it means to reach the home-buying customer in new and interesting ways will begin to mean something very different. With advertising visibility at an all-time low, understanding recall, and how those recollections are shared, is going to separate the marketers who remain visible, from those who don’t.



Further Reading:


Ross Andersen: ‘How Facebook Lets You Live Forever (Sort Of)’ (

Nick Bilton: ‘Disruptions: Indiscreet Photos, Glimpsed The Gone’ (

Ian Bogost: ‘The Cigarette Of The Century’ (

Noah Brier: ‘On Facebook, Intent And Marketing’ (

Tim Carmody: ‘A Button That Makes you Forget: On Deleting My Google Web History’ (

Vinton Cerf: ‘Internet Access Is Not A Human Right’ (

Ian Crouch: ‘Instagram’s Instant Nostalgia’ (

Scott Fulton: ‘Rights Of Media Could Trump Rights Of Individuals’ (

Megan Garber: ‘Forget About It: Making The Internet More Like Our Brains’ (

Josh Halliday: ‘Google To Fight Spanish Privacy Battle’ (

John Hendel: ‘Why Journalists Shouldn’t Fear Europe’s ‘Right To Be Forgotten” (

Nathan Jurgenson: ‘The Faux-Vintage Photo: Hipstamatic & Instagram’ (

Jonah Lehrer: ‘The Forgetting Pill Erases Painful Memories Forever’ (

Brett & Kate McKay: ‘The Autonomous Man In An Other-Directed World’ (

Alexis Madrigal: ‘I’m Being Followed’ (

Elinor Mills: ‘Obama unveils Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights’ (

ES Parker: ‘A Case Of Unusual Autobiographical Remembering’ (

Rebecca Rosen: ‘We Don’t Need A Digital Sabbath, We Need More Time’ (

Rhian Sasseen: ‘The Manufactured Nostalgia Of Instagram’ (

Ashlee Vance: ‘This Tech Bubble Is Different’ (

Jennifer Van Grove: ‘Americans Spend 100k Years On Facebook Each Month’ (

Audrey Watters: ‘How The Library Of Congress Is Building The Twitter Archive’ (