Making and Breaking Time Online

Facebook Live Ad (2016; NYC)

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we experience time online. We are increasingly aware of the presence and influence of time on the web, thanks in part to timestamps, our ability to “undo” the mistakes of the present and recent past, desires for version control, the general sense that we are staging performances on social media that are preserved as quickly as they are enacted. We joke about the poor researchers of the future who try to learn about our era from our Twitter archives. We wonder about mid-sentence delays between the latest Donald Trump tweets because we have clear evidence of the gaps in time in the form of metadata. The algorithms giving shape to our News Feed on Facebook helpfully remind us of the products our dead friends continue to “like” in the present tense, as if they are still alive.

Time, if not broken, is certainly complicated and at times disoriented by the web, in part because of how much information we have, the kinds of records we keep, have access to, produce, and inhabit, and the lenses and interfaces we use to read, write, broadcast, and communicate online.

Facebook Live Ad (2016; Boston)

For example, instead of past, present, and future, we are often compelled to inhabit a state of “Live.”    The Facebook Live initiative is just the latest attempt to encourage us to expand the time we spend in the present, digitally speaking. It’s been hard to ignore this “instructive” ad campaign Facebook has been running (at least in NYC and Boston, where I’ve spent some time over the last few months). Are we past the point of debating whether this kind of content is “valuable” to its producers? That seems to be the implication of the NYC mural’s insistence that users think “really” hard about what they care about sharing online, wink wink. Any content will do, Facebook suggests, since there’s a lot to learn from the data, whether or not they’re surprised by it. And despite its inclusion in a parenthetical aside, the suggestion to “mention the location at some point” in the gyro-centric instructions makes it clear that more accurately geolocating the present would be a big help to the people mapping and commodifying the time you spend there.


The present also materializes in the past, where it frequently shapes and occasionally dominates our view of history. For example, in January 2017, the Google Image search results for “1987” are now dominated by content related to Donald Trump: he is more visible here than Ronald Reagan, Bon Jovi, and Teddy Ruxpin (among others). Images from a February 2016 Politico cover story on a campaign speech made by Trump in ’87 appear here, as does content from Newsweek’s digital re-packaging of an ’87 cover story on The Donald (a feature that referenced his then-rumored “presidential ambitions”). A screencap of a once-forgotten 1987 CNN interview with Larry King where a presidential run is commented on also appears. Trump was certainly a presence on the cultural landscape of this year, but one wonders if his face would have made it on a page in the back of a U.S. history textbook published in the early 1990s.


How much will “1987” change over time? The language of “time travel” comes up now and again in discussions of the digital resources we have at our disposal. Mr Peabody’s “Wayback Machine” has been remade as a tool (by The Internet Archive) for exploring earlier sites and iterations of various corners of the web. In this particular context, The Wayback Machine’s calendar interface and timestamped metadata invite investments in a kind of “travel” taking place back to these hyperspecific moments in time, fragmented though they may now be (when they are accessible to us at all). I use the Wayback Machine quite a bit, but I imagine that more of us rely on Google and Google Image as our online portals to the past; in these contexts, where the interface is, at the surface, relatively bare and clean, time seems harder to pin down. But when we look at the wall of images in a Google Search result, we are more like Ozymandias, the antagonist of Watchmen, immersed in a stream of changing sights, full of patterns open to speculation and interpretation.

2008 (Google Image search results)

Or confusion. Remember 2008? The image above is a screenshot I took earlier this week on my laptop of the first set of Google Image results for the search term “2008.” Do you get the same results?  Why are web sites with information about cars and where to sell them so particularly successful at overwhelming this particular year’s search results? Is this an SEO thing? A 2008 thing or a 2017 thing? Both? Neither?

1981 (Google Image search results)

The year was 1981. More accurately, the year was 1981, as seen from the vantage point of 2017. Actually, we should get even more specific: the image above is the view of “1981,” the search term, on Monday, January 9th, 2017, at 6:55pm (EST), seen from my home IP address via my MacBook Pro’s wireless connection, read on the web in my Google Chrome browser while logged into my personal Google account. Almost two days later, running the same search  — which is no longer the same search, given the influence of my previous search on the results and the ever-changing web, among other factors — we get slightly different results:

1981, revisited (January 11th, 2017)

Let’s start again. The year was 1981. I’ve started here because it’s an important year for me: it’s literally the year I was born. Lots of other things happened that year, as we can see from the images above. Olivia Newton-John dominated the pop charts with “Physical.” Well, kind of: despite what the image — which comes from an Amazon listing of a Billboard compilation, not the magazine itself — tells us, “Bette Davis Eyes” was at the top of the “Hot 100” by the end of the year. In other music news, we see a black-and-white photo of Johnny Rotten’s post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd., which makes sense, I guess, since they played a show at The Ritz in May of 1981 that ended in a “riot” of sorts. OK, this perhaps wasn’t the most important pop cultural news of the year, but it does at least warrant a mention in the music venue’s Wikipedia page.  Maybe nothing else of note happened that year in music. It’s not like 1981 was the year that MTV started broadcasting on U.S. cable, and I’m sure the death of Bob Marley wasn’t as big of a deal as I’ve been led to believe by other sources.

1981: The DVD

Of course, we can’t really blame these search results for telling the story of 1981 this way. On the other hand, we might think more about the relationship between search engine optimization (SEO), time, history, and the web. For example, the above image, which appears on the first page of search results, comes from a DVD called 1981: The Time of Your Life, a product marketed as a greeting card (?) that doubles as a digital photo album of a particular year, “a collection of original and rare footage gathered from the vaults of some of the world’s leading news organizations” (according to a product description on Amazon). This DVD cover (of the product’s UK edition: the version for American audiences highlights CHiPs instead of Harrison Ford; I actually think that was a good call but unless my eyes are deceiving me, they chose an image that doesn’t include Larry Wilcox), despite the relative obscurity of this project and its architects, has an afterlife its authors may not have anticipated, thanks in part to its its availability on a particular online marketplace and material conditions that aid its visibility like its file size, metadata, and surrounding page elements (among other factors).

I’ve been thinking a lot about my various relationships with various forms of technology. In 2017 I’m really interested in how our ideas of the past, present, and future, are shaped by the digital tools we use to construct and research that past. I want to explore and play around with our messy relationship with time on the web. I want to interrogate the benefits and drawbacks of a “Live” web and explore the increasing influence of digital terraforming of our relationship to time and space, online and offline. And I want to think through these questions out loud, in public, in an attempt to draw more attention to the choppy undercurrents we swim in, often without realizing it. These areas extend into questions of “fake news,” revisionist histories in politics and speculative fiction, and digital curation, among other spaces and conversations.

For the teachers still reading this, they also might be topics of conversation to bring up with your students. What you see below is a relatively easy but arguably effective means of documenting some ways in which 2017 looks back at the last 35 years, a playful exercise in crowdsourcing the history of my time on this planet so far (1981-2017). Where is 2017 most present or absent? Where are the results predictable or surprising? What patterns emerge across years? What cultural references are accessible to you or your students? Where do these images reside? Where might they take us?

1981-2017: A Visual History in Google Image Search Results

1981-2017. Screencaps of the first sets of results for Google Image searches of each year.

Slideshow version

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