Nowadays, a lot of information can be found online. The starring actress of the 1996 movie “The Craft”? Fairuza Balk (courtesy of IMDB.) Where was Gordon Moore born? San Francisco (thank you, Wikipedia.) Exactly how hot did it get on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on July 7, 2008? 82 degrees (hat-tip to WeatherUnderground.) Minutiae from our daily lives can be similarly fished out of email inboxes, chat records, and online monthly credit card bills. If I ever want to know the last time I visited my hometown, or had dinner at a certain restaurant, the answer is quickly within my grasp.
So it’s surprising that today, many of the most important moments of our lives remain completely in our own memories. Emotional details about milestones in our personal lives and the lives of our close friends and family members are often never written down. That’s exactly the problem that a website called Proust is trying to solve. Proust is a wholly owned subsidiary within New York City-based media conglomerate IAC that bills itself as “a private place for families and friends to share and preserve memories.” On Tuesday morning, the company announced its launch out of beta testing and debuted interactive maps and timeline features.
Proust, which is completely free to use, prompts users to write about their lives with simple questions such as “Growing up, who did you most admire?” and “What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?” Answers can be public, private, or shared with small circles of family and friends. Users can accompany their anecdotes with uploaded photos or tagged map locations. Life stories can be viewed in either timeline form or a storybook format over a series of pages.
Proust was inspired by the Proust Questionnaire, a series of questions meant to reveal one’s personality which has been popularized in a monthly Q&A column in Vanity Fair magazine. The Proust Questionnaire is itself inspired by a segment in In Search of Lost Time, a 19th century novel written by Marcel Proust in which the protagonist bites into a certain kind of cookie that brings back a rush of memories from his childhood.
Earlier this month I interviewed Proust’s co-founder and CEO Tom Cortese, who gave me a demo of the website. Overall, I think Proust is a fantastic solution to a problem that many people don’t realize they have until it’s too late. But at the same time, the beautiful thing about Proust is that it does not impart the sobering gravity that characterizes similar websites such as Ancestry.com — Proust is actually fun to use. While ultimately the content can preserve memories for posterity, Proust was designed as “a place for the living,” Cortese told me. “We celebrate these wonderful relationships we have with our closest friends and the closest members of our families. This process of asking and answering questions with each other brings us closer while we’re still here.”
But can Proust be trusted with your most valuable memories? Cortese assured me that he and his company are dedicated to data preservation and privacy. As of now there is no one-click way to export your information from the site, but the CEO said that functionality is coming soon. Additionally, Proust is planning to offer physical products such as printed copies of timelines and books within the next several months. That is also how the company, which has no advertisements, plans to start making money.
Based on the fun and easy to navigate nature of the site, Proust should be popular with a large segment of the population from the get-go. Once the company has a verified way to export data, using Proust could quickly become a no-brainer for anyone who has lived long enough to have a few good stories to tell.
Here are some screenshots of the website (click on them to enlarge):