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How social networks mark their territory with end-of-the-year reflections

The yearbooks of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube

There’s comfort in reflecting on a year you’ve almost finished living. The days unfurl and stretch back with a languidness they never seem to have in the moment. The year presents itself as a single, complete period of time, rather than as an infinite series of hours and days stacked on top of each other. And hindsight makes you crave nostalgia: you’re wistful for things you didn’t really care about at the time, and fuzzy on the topics that once enraged you. But recently annual reflection has taken another form: The Platform Yearbooks, or your nostalgia, branded.

The 2K15 platform wars, in yearbook form

Now that the year is almost over, The Platforms have been steadily releasing their well-timed look-backs on 2015. Spotify’s Year in Music quantified the year in stream counts and distinctions between indie pop and indie R&B. Facebook chronicled deaths, debt, and destruction. Twitter mapped out popular emoji and hashtags. YouTube’s 2015 looked like a dance party on a perpetually sunny beach. And Tumblr lived in a world of goofy memes and cute photos of puppies spooning. Looking back on all of these reviews, it’s as if 2015 happened several different times in several different ways, making reality not a distinct thing, but a reflection of where on the internet you spent the most time. These Platform Yearbooks, like any other yearbook, are collections of the year’s most captivating photos, the most popular people, and the most-talked about events — except now everyone has signed up to be a member of the yearbook club.

No one experiences anything in exactly the same way, so the platforms must do their best to construct a reality defined and quarantined by their users. If you looked only at Facebook’s Yearbook, 2015 was defined by massive historical moments that would unsteady even the most optimistic person. Except for the federal government’s assertion that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right in America, most of Facebook’s 2015 liner notes paint an apocalyptic picture of the year: the Syrian refugee crisis, the Greek debt crisis, last month’s attacks in Paris. Then, while Twitter’s Yearbook covers some of the same topics — #BlackLivesMatter, #PrayforParis — its user base seems largely composed of enthusiastic One Direction fans with an interest in politics that waxes and wanes with the Moon. And on other platforms, 2015 looked like nothing but a delightful time. On Tumblr, the year was defined by bad puns, the life of a tiny stuffed dinosaur, and sheep grazing on Google Street View. YouTube’s Rewind is similarly free of suffering: it’s all dancing skeletons, PewDiePie, and beach volleyball. The only pain in YouTube’s world is T-Pain. And we're still waiting on Google's Yearbook, the one so monstrous and trend-defining it calls itself the Zeitgeist report.

This isn’t the first time we’ve gotten a year defined by platforms. YouTube’s Yearbooks date back to 2011 and Facebook’s date back to 2012. The Platform Yearbooks present the opportunity for a cumulative nostalgia, one in which years never really end, but are rather useful stopwatches timing the documentation of a platform’s existence. The story that gets published in them is not Your Life 2012–2015, or The World 2012–2015; it’s Facebook, 2012–2015.

The summary of a year used to be little more than Dick Clark listing newly dead celebrities before the world counted down from 10. Now, it’s a perpetual cycle of videos, images, and text, marking the territory of a platform. It’s a photo in which someone has asked you to pose, held your fist under your chin, and told your peers to scrawl a message: Hope you have a good summer, see you around. The Yearbooks are a way for the platforms to remind us of the time they were Homecoming King; hoping we remember that they were elected by us, hoping we remember their very nice smiles.