Memoir does most of the work of collecting memories automatically, reminding you of the past in ways that sometimes seem serendipitous

For five years, Lee Hoffman has obsessively tracked his entire life — everything from his moods, thoughts and activities to whom he meets up with and what he eats.

When he pored over the first year’s data, he says, he didn’t learn much, but he did find it fascinating to look back at the details.

Thinking other people would find it similarly interesting to reflect on their lives but probably wouldn’t want go to the same effort, he created a free iPhone app called Memoir that does most of the work automatically, reminding you of the past in ways that sometimes seem serendipitous.

The app comes at a time when we’re collecting ever more personal data with every social-network update, location check-in, and photo posting — a mound that will only grow as we make more use of mobile devices and wearable tech like smart watches and Google Glass.

Yet most of us aren’t taking advantage of this information, Hoffman argues, so Memoir, which rolled out two months ago, does it for you by wrangling photos from your phone and connected social networks, as well as status updates and location check-ins. It also uses clever tricks to call up these old memories on the basis of where you are, what you’re doing, and who you’re with.

At its simplest, the app can show you a digital diary of what you were doing yesterday, a year ago today, two years ago today, three years ago today, and so on — similar to a competing but more limited app called Timehop. The app also lets you annotate some old memories; include new memories by adding a photo with a note, location information, and additional thoughts; and search through them.

Beyond that, though, Memoir tries to remind you of past memories when you return to specific places and hang out with certain people, nudging you with notifications and updates to your Memoir feed. If you go skiing, it may, for instance, remind you of a photo you took the last time you were on the slopes. (Timehop recently added a location-based memory-serving function, called Nearby, but the user must ask to see an appropriate memory each time.) The app also encourages collaborative memories, so if you have any Facebook friends who are also using the app and you happen to be taking photos at the same event, the app will suggest you share them with each other.

Once you’ve given it permission to access information on your phone and social networks, Memoir slurps up all your connected photos, check-ins, and other social signals, grouping overlapping information into separate “memories” on its servers. It creates a “radius” of time and location for each of your events and checks them against your friends’ events to determine whether there might be any shareable images, Hoffman says.

Jason Chan, an assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University and principal investigator of the school’s Memory & Education Lab, says that Memoir and similar apps may be more successful at keeping users interested than, say, a diary, which requires significant effort. Still, he’s concerned about potential security and privacy issues with apps that are meant to gather so much of your personal data in one place.

For Hoffman, though, apps like Memoir aren’t just for fun—they also mark the first moves toward a future in which we record everything we do and use computers to help us sort out what’s important. He already does this, to an extent: when he arrives at a stranger’s apartment, he’ll take a picture of the building and door number—that way, next time he visits, Memoir can automatically jog his memory. “As we get more and more data, whether we do it or somebody else, it’s effectively going to be memory replacement/augmentation,” he says. Maybe one day, but it could take a while. I tried Memoir out and found it mostly a fun tool for getting some use out of all those social-network status updates I type and photos I snap but rarely look at again.

The majority of what I saw was mundane: complaints about the San Francisco weather and real estate prices, a photo of my aunt’s grumpy Siamese cat sitting in her kitchen sink, a listing of my Thanksgiving dinner intake from 2011.

Even the most unimportant details can admittedly spark a fond (or not-so-fond) remembrance of what was happening beyond that Facebook update or picture. Still, I had to rely on using Memoir more for serendipity than to recall specific memories, as its search feature didn’t seem to work all that well.

There are more advanced features in the works for Memoir. One thing Hoffman and cofounder Angela Kim are focusing on is how to collect and share memories without explicit signals. “Can I just leave the phone in my pocket and it’s making sense of my life and collaboratively getting memories from the people around me?” he asks.

Not all memories are good ones, and there are definitely some referenced online that I’d be happy to forget. For Hoffman, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, though. “If you want to delete things you can delete things,” he says. “But the cool things you never had before, you have.”

© 2013 MIT Technology Review

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