The future of biographies in the Facebook era


Warren G. Harding (second from left) would not seem to be the type to write steamy love letters. His biographers know better. (AP Photo)

Thanks to the explosion of information we share about our lives online, the way we think about biography is rapidly changing. In the future, biographers will not spend decades perusing dusty archives and gaining access to friends and family. Your biography will be immediate and fully automated and completely digital. Instead of letters and archives and faded photos, your biography will be assembled from status updates, tweets, GPS data and selfies.

And it will be completely beyond your power to control who creates it or who sees it.

The case of former President Warren G. Harding offers a preview of what’s to come. On July 29, the Library of Congress is going to open up the “steamy love letters” between Harding and his mistress Carrie Phillips to the world. After being sealed tightly for more than 50 years, they’re going to be released online. And that could open the door to a completely new perception of who President Harding was and how he lived his life. It turns out that the man best known for “the return of normalcy” was a passionate man who took frequent trips to visit his mistress and wrote about his “mad, tender, devoted, ardent, eager, passion-wild, jealous . . . hungry . . . love . . .” for a woman who may have been a German spy.

While Harding’s life was lived entirely offline, the Library of Congress — by making these materials available online — is providing a bit of foreshadowing for how your own biography will be created.

Just consider how much Facebook already knows about you just from content that’s posted on your timeline. Facebook knows what you like, who you became friends with, even the type of music you like. It knows the key events in your life, and it knows who have been the most important people in our life. It’s only natural that Facebook could easily do great obituaries and biographies of its billion-plus users.

That might not be feasible (or advisable) now — but just consider what’s going to happen within the next 50 years. By the year 2065, the number of dead users on Facebook could outnumber the living. Assuming Facebook continues to be where we share our lives with others, that’s billions of potential biographies waiting to be written and read. At some point in the future, we will surely embrace amateur biographies, in which bits and pieces of our lives are assembled into a broader digital montage — something along the lines of Intel’s 2011 project, The Museum of Me. You won’t have the privilege of professional historians perusing your work.

It’s already becoming common for Facebook and Twitter to be dissected anytime there’s a major news event involving an unknown personality. Anyone remember how we combed through the Tsarnaev social media accounts for a clue after the Boston Marathon bombings? Or how we use social media to open up a window into the minds of perpetrators anytime there’s been a shooting or a crime? Open up a tabloid newspaper these days, and you’ll see photos of criminals and victims culled directly from social media.

At the end of the day, biographers of the future won’t have time to leaf through the letters, documents and personal correspondence that once marked the methodology of the modern biographer ever since the time of Boswell. Future biographers will look for ways to automate it in real-time. That means somehow getting in front of all that data – the Big Data – that you are creating. It means finding a way to separate out the view of your life that you’d like people to see from the life that’s real. In other words, just because you post certain types of content on Facebook, that doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to appear in your biography.

In the case of Harding, the power of the Internet to define you means swapping out one view – the devoted husband and gray politician who died in office – with another view- the guy who read 30-page titillating missives from his mistress and found ways to liaise with her aboard ships while using fake names and aliases. You can just imagine how all this would have played out in the digital era.

The future of biography may sound crude, awkward and somehow incomplete. Yet, in one way it’s genius: it will remember history not the way some people want to remember it, but the way it actually happened. The task for biographers is to find a way to take the digital content that we create every day and transform it into a living, breathing biography that fully captures the breadth and scope of our digital selves.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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