2012 Year in Review: The Year of You

BY Hari Sreenivasan  December 25, 2012 at 11:30 AM EST

It used to be that major institutions were the only arbiters of Year in Reviews. Whether it was broadcast networks or international newspapers of record, a small group of people assembled what they thought were the most momentous occasions of the year.

In the last few years, another metric emerged: search engine results. They began chronicling — from a demand-driven perspective — what we searched for all year. Thanks to algorithms, page rankings and query counts, we were able to see from Bing, Yahoo and Google our annualized collective curiosity. The interesting thing to me was at times the gap between what was deemed important by institutions and what we, in the aggregate, sought out and found to be important.

Google has kicked this practice up a notch by creating its annual zeitgeist videos, which at once seem institutional and reflexive. On the one hand, Google decides what to edit into this compressed video, and on the other, much of what it adds is based on trending videos through YouTube and search results. The video capsules seem to become only more tear-jerking. Here is this year’s:

However, for the first time I noticed that the social networks were pulling their collective server crunching powers together to customize a me-centric year in review. Facebook generated this:

Among other things, it highlighted some of the places I went, the pictures I took, the “Friends” I added and the pages I “Liked”. As with most things Facebook, I don’t have a firm grasp of how the machine came up with this list, whether it is based simply on the largest number of people liking an object I posted each month, but it’s a cross-section of my life and expressions nonetheless. (Also in classic Facebook fashion, it seems this year in review of your account defaults to “public” — meaning even your non-friends can see it. While I don’t particularly care since I have a public page, you might. And I can’t seem to find the hide switch to tell you how to do it.)

The length of your expressions is no matter, even Twitter is highlighting YOU. They paired with Vizify to show me my golden tweet (the tweet echoed/ amplified/ retweeted most often) along with words most likely to appear in my tweets, along with nifty timelines of when those words appeared.

Seems I used several tweets with #PBSELECTION this year (go figure), and I seem to say “tnx” a lot (yes, I’m polite).

I’m as fascinated by the repercussions of these amazingly large data sets. For example, rummaging through Facebook’s stories, it is a bit mind-boggling that their snapshots from other countries of songs discussed and places “checked-in” are likely to be culled from incredibly large numbers of people (I’m looking at India, for example), which have no analog equal. It would take a large army of census-takers to gather the kinds of information from the number of people who are on Facebook in almost every country.

Humans are now opting to share so much of their lives through social platforms that there will inevitably be a cottage industry (other than intelligence agencies), which will harvest these data points and figure out how to exploit them. For example, if a certain cocktail begins trending in India, perhaps a liquor company with an ingredient in that drink, which had never marketed there, will deploy resources to distribute more aggressively.

Or if there are a lot of people checking in at a tourist destination, maybe a travel agency could create incentives and deals for travelers. I’m sure Facebook and FourSquare and Twitter and LinkedIn all have advertising and sales staffs who are postulating ways to sell slivers of information we all generate “anonymously” — much like different grade mortgages were packaged and sold during the housing boom (we know how that turned out). Some part of all this unsettles me and I don’t particularly understand why.

So what ought we make of these new metrics? Is it simply another point along the continuum of tracking tousle, a different method to help us keep track of our increasingly digital worlds? Is it a power shift from the institution to the public? Is it another manifestation of that reflexive Time Person of the Year cover labeling YOU the winner? Or is the me-centric Year in Review an indicator of the solipsism enabled by social media?

Share your answers with me. Comment below (I’ll try to check in a couple of times during my week off) or across Twitter or Facebook where I’ll post a link to this piece.

Hope you had a good year, and have an even better one.

You can subscribe to Hari on Facebook, Google Plus and on Twitter: