I think it’s really fun to quantify things that aren’t usually quantified, and I love to reminisce. With this in mind, I wanted to revisit the memories in my life so far and tabulate and depict them in a new way.
I wanted to explore how my memories are linked both to the places I’ve been and the people in my life.
As I worked, I reflected on this quote:
“In the end, it’s not where you are or what you’re doing, but who you’re with that matters.”
I think this is partially true. My memories are extremely dependent on people, and some of my strongest memories are from quite unexpected places (No offense, Gaylord, Michigan!). But the places I’ve lived and traveled in my life have led me to meet amazing people I otherwise never would’ve known, and so location has been essential in my creating memories so far, if only as a catalyst.
So, I spent a couple hours sipping hot apple cider with bourbon and inputting data about my memories into a spreadsheet. Before I explain the visualizations and how I made them, here’s how I thought about my memories, and how I went about quantifying them.
I chose to focus on and visualize the intensity of my memories with people and places because I experience memory as a spectrum of intensity.
I represented memory intensity by assigning a number, 0-100, to each friendship or place, based on how strong my associated memories were. I was tempted to assign positive/negative values to the memories (are they “good memories” or “bad memories?”), but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like none of my strongest memories are all good or all bad. They’re multi-dimensional, and without getting too nerdy, it would be beyond my knowledge or skill to visualize them in Euclidean n-space 🤓.
So I went with this definition of intensity, which I defined very unscientifically as the strength of the feeling I got in my stomach when I remembered them.
Here was my process for creating and visualizing the data:
People: “Who You’re With”
- I downloaded a list of my Facebook friends and the date we became friends.
- I randomized the order of the list to eliminate any systematic bias in my remembering (I thought I might over-value the first memories I rated, and then under-value later ones as I became less sensitized. Because of this, I sorted the list by randomly-generated numbers in Excel.)
- I proceeded to go through the list, one by one, and read each name, and then input a number, 0 to 100, representing how intensely I perceived the memories I had with that person. So, a rating of 100 would mean I had the most intense memories possible, whereas 0 would be none (and there is one 0, and it went to someone who I honestly don’t remember meeting. Oops).
I could have used more objective data to rank the memories I have with people. For example, the number of messages we’ve exchanged, or number of photos we’ve been tagged in together. In fact, Facebook does a pretty good job of determining who your “best” friends are. If you click on your friends list and scroll through, you’ll notice that the people at the top are the people you’re closest to.
However, I chose to make this data purely subjective, because that’s what memory is: subjective. I would have been unhappy with any ranking Facebook came up with because it would have been wrong to me. It can’t match how I remember the people in my life. So even though it took a while and it’s harder to explain, I chose to subjectively quantify each memory, based purely on my perception and the feeling I got when I thought about each person.
To visualize the data, I put the spreadsheets into Tableau Public and played with different visualizations until I got some that I felt showed clearly how my relationships and memories are structured.
Places: “Where You Are”
I love working with geospatial data, so I thought it would be fun to plot my memories on a map and relive the trips that I’ve been exceedingly fortunate to have taken. I went back through Facebook and looked at all of my pictures and where they were taken, and thought back to every place I’ve spent significant amounts of time in my life. I entered all of these places in a spreadsheet — 103 in total. I did the same thing that I did with my Facebook friends: I assigned each a numerical value, 0-100, which represented how intense my memories of that place were.
Then I used Carto, a free tool for visualizing geospatial data, to depict the data on a map. I scaled each point based on the intensity of the memory. If you want to do something similar, you can create an account, upload a spreadsheet of your data, and have a visualization in less than 10 minutes.
INTERPRETING THE DATA
People: “Who You’re With”
I was curious to see how the intensity of memories would be distributed across the people in my life (using Facebook friends as a proxy). My hunch was that the distribution of memories would be intensely skewed towards a few people — perhaps 30 friends would account for 90% of the intensity. This ended up being pretty accurate, but I was surprised at just how many of my Facebook friends I, quite frankly, barely remember.
It’s a little disheartening to actually see how little you think about people you’re ostensibly “friends” with, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Humans aren’t meant to be friends with more than 100 or so people, so there’s nothing wrong with not thinking about a lot of people very often. There’s also nothing wrong with staying connected with them in some way, and Facebook friendship is generally pretty costless.
The gender visualizations are about what I expected, too. I identify as a male and I’m interested in women, so I thought it made sense that memories with females were a little bit more intense than the others, on average.
Places: “Where You Are”
The map of my memories quite simply tells a story of my life. I was born in Santa Fe, though I moved when I was quite young and don’t have a ton of memories there. I grew up in Cincinnati, (where everyone should live at least once!) and have had stints in St. Louis, Istanbul, Providence and Chicago, with lots of little jaunts thrown in that contribute some of my most intense memories.
This was an incredibly fun exercise and something I’d encourage everyone to do. It was awesome to travel in my mind to places far from this coffee shop in Cincinnati. As I did it, three big things jumped out at me:
- I am extremely privileged. This does feel kind of self-congratulatory, but oh well.
- Even though I think I’m pretty well-traveled for someone my age, looking at the map, I realize I have barely seen the world. It’s relatively embarrassing that I’ve been to like 8 places in Switzerland and 0 in South America, Africa or Asia… or Antarctica.
- I love maps, mainly because every time I look at them I’m surprised by something. Did you know Berlin was that far East? Nor did I… nor did I.
Ideas for Next Time
There are tons more things I wish I could’ve done with this data. Seeing how my friends are linked to one another would be really cool, or showing where my most intense relationships are associated geographically. But this was a fun start and was interesting to think about.
If you’d like to do something similar with your Facebook or travel data (I really encourage you to! So fun.) and would like more insight into my methodology or access to the spreadsheets I used as a template, please don’t hesitate to reach out to [email protected]. I’d love to help get you started.
Or if you buy me a coffee (I accept Venmo), I’ll even do it for you. (The visualization process is really quick. It’s the data creation that takes a while.)