The Era of “E-Lit”: Reading 800 Million Memoirs on Facebook

Rachael Jennings


A wedding — remembered with bucolic reception-site photos and perfectly-lit portraits of the Mr. & Mrs, but excluding any churlishly drunken dance-floor episodes as well as the private moment between the groom and his best man before heading into the church.  A break-up — remembered with Adele song lyrics and a simple “Single” icon, but denuded of the stalled-car moments leading up to an ending, as well as the half-written e-mails and almost-dialed phone calls that followed. A move — remembered with a “Location” update and a new banner photo of a glimmering city street, but devoid of the boxes, goodbyes, and the kitten left in the old house.


If it didn’t appear on Facebook, it didn’t happen. And if it happened on Facebook, then it definitely did not happen quite the way it is electronically “remembered.”


Facebook’s new Timeline function gives its 800 million users the chance to show, share and step into each other’s lives — or, more realistically, their edited lives. Constantly re-published electronic memoirs, these re-formatted Facebook pages are like Regency Period courtesan Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs — a scroll down memory lane, typed up just the way the writer wants, leaving silences in spaces and intent behind words, tags and lyrics.


From the Latin root memoraro, -are, the word “memoir” literally means “remember;” and usually, a memoir focuses in on a particular period of time. Just as a given Timeline may highlight albums, notes and comments around a trip or vacation and leave the mundane month of November blank until Thanksgiving, memoirs tell stories that ring out in bursts — they leave out the white pages of the uneventful with the purpose of telling a story that shows meaning: “This is how I got where I am today; this is my filtering down the senselessness of life into sense. Watch my story unfold.”


In Erica Wagner’s September 2006 New York Times review, she wrote, “Life is better, somehow, if it’s a story.” The appeal of a tall tale — especially, a tall tale about oneself — is as age-old as it is alluring: one of the oldest recognized memoirs written by St. Augustine, called Confessions, details his meandering life path toward spiritual transcendence — beginning in 371 A.D.


As Daniel Mendelsohn writes in “Enough About Me” in the January 2010 The New Yorker, along with the innate satisfaction of reading and writing these memoirs, pretty much from the beginning, people have been complaining about the shallowness, the opportunism, the lying, the betrayals, the narcissism.”


In Wilson’s aforementioned Memoirs, betrayal is the name of the game. Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington famously said, “Publish and be damned. ”

With the Duke of Argyll, Lords Ponsonby and Worcester as some of the men who satisfied her le diable au corps, revealing secrets and associations about these clients was enough to punish them beyond the grave — punishment for, as she states, not supplying her with promised income in her older age.



If memoir is the drunken cousin on literature’s family tree, then Facebook is the one shouting, “rounds on me!” at Happy Hour with her aunts and uncles — while telling some captivating stories, on the rocks. Save the straight-up-order for a different genre; Facebook’s memoirization is full of dilution, pineapple flags and simple syrup, mixing together into perfect recipe for self-declared truths and indiscretions — whether carefully worded to show pride, disgust or jealousy or carelessly thumbed in from an iPhone in a moment of epiphany, surprise or anger.


As Lesley Blanch writes in her introduction to Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, “Harriette Wilson’s life was deplorable—but how readable! …”


And how deplorably readable is the everyday?


According to a study published at the end of January 2010, on average, social media users spent more than five-and-a-half hours on popular networks such as Facebook and Twitter in December 2009, while in December 2008, users clocked just over three hours on social networking.


Social networking sucks users in for over five hours a day — that’s saying something about how readable Facebook literature has become.


The editable nature of Timeline grants Facebook users the power to tell an “everyday” tale as tall or short as desired; moreover, it allows users the chance to do what memoirs have done again and again for their writers — act as their own arrangers of fate.


The Timeline allows e-memoirists the chance to delete albums, years and comments and to rearrange dates — so, if a breakup is listed as occurring two weeks after the mournful ice-cream period, the currently recovered halves of that relationship can return the breakup “event” to its proper date. Or, delete the relationship all together. Like Wilson herself, who used her own editing tool with purpose — Facebook users can zoom in, star and highlight important events, weeding out those that still haven’t come to make sense or still haven’t turned publically printable.


In Grégoire Boullier’s The Mystery Guest, the narrator attempts to make sense of seemingly random events: his grief over the end of a relationship, the death of Michel Lehris, and an invitation to social artist Sophie Calle’s birthday.


“However obscurely the one fact figured in the other, I sensed a connection,” Boullier writes.


He spends the entirety of the novel attempting to piece together the wild string of events into meaning — this led to this …taught me that.


Facebook gives this hunt for purpose new accessibility with Timeline. From the garrulous friend who gives constant updates — “just got back from the grocery store and you’ll never guess what happened!” “Unloading the groceries and just tried these pretzel thins — to die for!” —to the friend of few words, always heavy with meaning in their scarcity from the newsfeed, Facebook friends are constantly projecting their public versions of meaning to their networks.


Like Boullier’s narrator, like Wilson, and Augustine himself, Facebook users have the chance to edit and re-examine each other’s meaning-directed lives: from the “Born” section on Timeline to 2009’s song lyrics to 2011’s nostalgic musings, e-memoirists are making “it” happen and un-happen — making stories from statuses — with the click of a key. 

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