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Posted at 11:39 AM ET, 12/18/2012

What the machines thought of us in 2012


The Times Square New Year's Eve Ball is tested the day before New Year's Eve on December 30, 2011 in New York City. (Mario Tama - GETTY IMAGES)

T’is the season for year-in-review posts, and this year, the Internet’s biggest players have added a new wrinkle. Using sophisticated algorithms and tapping into our wealth of big data, Facebook and Twitter are able to construct personalized year-that-was features, which take the hard work out of actually remembering what you did in 2012 and then sharing it with friends and family. Or, if you prefer, you can use other services that import your photos and videos from other social media sites to help you make sense of what was trending in your life this past year.

If you struggled to decide which photos to put on your holiday cards this year, Facebook has an alternate solution: a personalized "year in review" timeline with your Top 20 moments from Facebook, including life events, videos, photos and popular stories. Or, consider Twitter, which has partnered with Vizify to create an interactive, personalized infographic "My Year on Twitter." The graphic showcases your Golden Tweet (your most re-tweeted tweet of the year), your Golden Follower (your most loyal Twitter follower) and a list of your most popular topics on Twitter, all neatly organized by quarter.

Other start-ups are getting into the game of becoming our external memory on the Web. Timehop is a time capsule app for your mobile life. Then there’s the mobile app Rewind.me, which takes social data from Foursquare, Instagram and Facebook and transforms it into behavioral insights and personalized timelines. Claiming to “make your past powerful,” Rewind.me is at the forefront of transforming all of your past digital history into a personal asset, complete with Klout-like scores for rating your experiences and helping you see how you stack up with your friends.

And that’s where it gets interesting. As more of our memories become auto-generated, it becomes easier to see how “the machines” will be able to learn more about us. They will be able to rate our experiences, help us remember things that we thought we had forgotten, and they will guide us to activities that are the most likely to be commented on, shared and re-tweeted across the Web. In this regard, it’s hard not to think of Richard Dawkins and his provocative thesis that humans are merely meme-replication machines put here on earth to transmit and replicate nature’s memes.

Of course, social media sites and mobile apps are not yet able to converse with us in a way that we take them to be human, but the days of hyper-intelligent machines being able to use sophisticated algorithms to pass the Turing Test can’t be far away. Imagine being able to ask your digital devices to perform all the duties we now associate with sentient beings - an armchair psychologist capable of helping you confront your most painful memories, or a life coach able to goad you on to achieve more next year (or at least, do more things that other people will like, favorite and re-tweet).

With each passing year, we are increasingly using the Internet as a giant external brain, tasking it not only with the cognitive steps of finding answers to everyday questions, but also with storing our most cherished memories and then making sense of our online lives. In an era of information overload, the Web has become like a long-time friend who remembers all your good times together, a trusted mentor who answers obvious questions without passing judgment, or a significant other who can complete your sentences without asking.

Washington Post Co. Chairman and chief executive Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board of directors.

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By  |  11:39 AM ET, 12/18/2012

 
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