a scroll down memory lane

nostalgia and the internet

One new notification. “You have memories with Daphne Liu, Eric Muller, and 9 others to look back on today.” I tap into the new screen. Today is April 3, 2015. “Three years ago today,” Facebook tells me, in 2012, my high school marching band had just gotten back from our spring trip to New York City. Twelve hours overnight by bus up and down the east coast, the trip five days long, and three years ago today was when the photos went up on Facebook and we went through the new-photos frenzy of immediately reliving the trip we’d just experienced. “Four years ago today,” I had just gotten back from the spring break college tour trip that included Brown. Five years ago, I was apparently preparing for the state Science Olympiad competition. Two years ago, my dad posted an article about the yelling goat meme on my wall.

Facebook has been testing On This Day since 2013, but the feature is finally rolling out to the general population of the website. It was unexpected, but not surprising, when the first notification popped up for it a few days ago. After all, the internet loves its nostalgia. Clickbait articles use nostalgia as their lure, especially ‘90s nostalgia, which has become so commonplace that it’s become a meme in its own right.  On a user-generated level, Throwback Thursday has been around in concept since 2006, and as a trending hashtag since 2011. On This Day isn’t even the first platform to synthesize old posts; Timehop (an independent app that synthesizes past data from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Dropbox, iPhoto, Google Plus, and phone cameras) has also been around and popular since 2011. While Facebook hasn’t previously rolled out anything on the scale of On This Day, it has made forays into nostalgia before with its holiday-based recap videos—friendship summarizers for Thanksgiving, years-in-review for New Year’s, and the like. It seems right that it’s about time for it to go all-in with a feature that does comprehensive life in review.

I’m a big nostalgic, and I’ve always enjoyed seeing stuff from the past, both my own and in general. I own two typewriters. I love antique stores. I loved my grandmother’s basement crowded with family memorabilia. My dorm room is wallpapered in photos and my favorite books from throughout my life sit on my shelf beside my high school yearbook. A friend and I are rereading a goofy manga from middle school mostly because we haven’t read it since then. Even now, I’m still sort of a sucker for nostalgia clickbait.  So, inevitably, I was excited about Timehop, which I’ve had on my phone for months now. For some reason, though, I was less excited to see On This Day.  Perhaps it is the lack of novelty that discovering Timehop had. Or perhaps it is its notification-based nature—I don’t like the sense of obligation that comes from apps nagging me to check in. Timehop, for instance, I check on my own whenever I remember (which is most days). There aren’t a lot of differences between the two platforms themselves, so this difference in access method seems like a plausible reason.

There’s also the fact that once I click on that tempting notification for On This Day, I have no choice about what it shows me. This is true for Timehop too, but with notifications disabled, it doesn’t seem quite as in-your-face. There aren’t a lot of things in my past I’m running away from, nothing I’d actually wince to see brought back, but I’m sure there are things that I posted at age 14 that are mildly embarrassing now, and I’m definitely not looking forward to On This Day and Timehop’s offerings around my ex’s birthday. Timehop wisely offered an opt-in button before showing results on Valentine’s Day, but neither it nor On This Day really have any way of knowing what their users may not want to see. Besides adding filters for words like “RIP” or certain people’s names, there’s not a whole lot that Facebook can do to avoid this. The success of the feature will depend on the balance of what’s in people’s social media pasts, and how much enjoyment they derive in remembering. On This Day has already gotten some flak for bringing back triggering items.

I’m not sure where the jury will fall. Timehop’s success seems to predict similar results for On This Day, but that is not a certainty. At least both On This Day and Timehop have one advantage over time capsule apps like ThrowBack, a camera app that will send photos from one month to five years ahead. This advantage is breadth. It’s fun taking photos and shipping them off to the future, but something that seems like a great ThrowBack at the time you send it might have soured by the time it arrives. Single, selected moments that we deem important enough to ThrowBack are emotionally loaded, and so the payoff can either be so much better or so much worse. With On This Day, you are seeing old Facebook posts—not things you thought were memorable, just things you thought were worth sharing. The memories are likely to be less emotional, more purely entertaining.

Interestingly, On This Day and Timehop seem to be targeted much more at our generation than at anyone else, despite everyone’s proclivity for remembrance. My dad, for instance, shares my appreciation for nostalgia. He has uploaded plenty of old high school and college photos and scans of memorabilia to Facebook. However, he doesn’t really see the point of being shown events that took place only one year ago, because one year ago simply doesn’t seem that long ago or different to him. The things that are the most fun to see on nostalgia apps are things we’ve mentally filed away under “past,” and the least interesting things are the ones we still remember well enough that we think of them as having just happened. This explains the predomination of 1990s listicles over 2010s or even 2000s ones, and it explains my dad’s disinterest in On This Day. For me, three years ago is long enough to land me back in high school, but for him, it’s more of the same job and the same place. On This Day and TimeHop show me posts that send me back down memory lane; they show him posts that might as well be random.

I am not sure yet whether I’ll keep notifications on for On This Day. I can check it on my own, if I want, or I can just go back through old photos and comment on them, digging them up for everyone to see. I could also stick to Timehop and to posting baby photos on Instagram. Regardless of which I choose, though, I will move on from here a little more in mind of the fact that today’s status is five years from now’s memory. Whether you choose to tweet a vacation, post photos of your friends, or just store photos in a folder on your hard drive, we’ve moved into a new era of memory keeping. The further we move into the future, the easier it is to look back.