"Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.”
Don Draper, everyone, pitching the Kodak Carousel, during a scene of Mad Men recreating the late 1960s. But he could also be talking about Facebook On This Day, or Timehop, or any of the recent spate of nostalgia apps arriving 50 years after the Carousel was first patented. The half-century makes no difference: the impulse to look backwards is still the same, and it’s growing increasingly difficult to scan through Facebook without spotting a #tbt, #fbf or just an unprompted photo of you parents dressing like Fleetwood Mac the first time around (and actually looking way hotter than you, soz).
There’s certainly a lot of fuel for this time machine- we’ve been filling up the tank for almost a decade. Like many so-called Millennials in their twenties and thirties now, I grew up on walls, feeds and timelines. I joined Facebook the day after my 18th birthday, so it caught the tail end of awkward school disco nights, final festivals saved up for with pocket money and moving away from home. Fresher’s Week, graduation and then the ensuing years of internships and jobs mean I’ve now spent eight years on this thing.
For the most part, Facebook caught it all, and it’s uncanny, being reminded of this every day. The bands we used to care about, the people that came and went, the BS and the stuff that actually meant something, all given the same weight. People used to have to spend hours curating physical photo albums and remembering to show friends and relatives what they’d put together. Now it’s all waiting for us the minute we wake up.
Back to the Future With Facebook On This Day
In this state of permanent déjà vu, with every upload not only crystallised in time but also taking on undue meaning when catapulted into my iPhone two, three, five and seven years into the future, you have to begin to ask why we’re being nudged into this behaviour. Facebook has always managed to shepherd its users into interacting in the way that suits it best. In 2015, we’re being encouraged to live in the past.
Facebook was the only major social network to be used less in 2014. It’s still huge- by far the biggest social network outside of China. But while platforms like Pinterest and Tumblr grew, Facebook flatlined at best. The Global Web Index (GWI) research found that although people are still logging on regularly (more than half of Facebook’s active users logged on more than once a day in 2014), it’s become more of a passive hub for underlying social connections. Instead of sharing in-depth thoughts with your entire friendship group or uploading all 96 photos from Kos into a neatly cultivated holiday album, the actions are becoming more like maintenance: responding to messages, liking a good friend’s status, sharing that Instagram photo you took yesterday.
“It’s not that Facebook is being abandoned,” GWI’s head of trends Jason Mander wrote in the latest report. “Rather, it’s that people are using Facebook less intensively or actively than before.”
A FoMO chart developed by Dr Andy Przybylski, a behavioural scientist at Oxford University, used to measure the fear of missing out experience online.
Smartphones are the current culprit- we’re all logging in more on small screens, for briefer periods of time. When people aren’t making their own updates anymore, how do you make sure they still want to visit? Simple. Run the repeats. If people are doing less on Facebook, just invent a way for people to do something more easily.
For anyone that still sees Facebook as ‘home’ online, these recycled nuggets of nostalgia are an almost guaranteed way to get us to interact. Giving users a gentle prod into the past is both easy and probably an ideal way of encouraging likes and interaction. What gets sinister is the cumulative effect: when logging on to Facebook induces more than a wince. This used to be from seeing ‘Blank Blank tagged 12 photos with you’- now it’s from seeing those 12 photos back on rotation, back to the future, no matter the fact they happened four years ago with people you haven’t spoken to in almost as long.
A Psychological Boost
At the moment, we don’t know if that’s a bad thing. While nostalgia has been thought of as everything from a Romantic desire to a mental illness. It’s now believed people that spend time nostalging also have a healthier sense of self-continuity and stronger psychological resources to fall back on when their present doesn’t go to plan.
“Nostalgia is a feature of everyday life” Dr Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey, tells me over email “– over half of adults in every age category between 18 and 91 report feeling nostalgic at least once a week. And everyday nostalgia is one way that we can give ourselves a little psychological boost. When we think of fond and meaningful memories from our past it makes us feel happier, better about ourselves, more connected to other people, and that life is more meaningful.”
“Research shows that people are especially likely to bring nostalgic memories to mind to help them feel better when they are feeling down or lonely, making it an important psychological resource. The popularity of apps such as Timehop and On This Day is a testament to the feel-good factor that nostalgia provides. It also means that now not only do we carry nostalgic memories around in our heads but also in our pockets, providing a new way to tap into this resource.”
There is something incredibly compelling about having files and files of things just about you. Timehop co-founder Jonathan Wegener says the app has 15 million users, about half of which check the app every single day. That, he likes to say, is double the number of people who read The New York Times each day (and across all platforms). Before social media, the material from which we could be nostalgic about was restricted. Now, whether it’s feeding narcissism or something more comforting, we’re accessing these past experiences in an entirely different way from the serendipitous.
Savouring the Moment
I asked Dr Wing Yee Cheung, a psychology research fellow at the University of Southampton, one of the key centres of inquiry on nostalgia, if she thought it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
“We don’t know if there is such thing as too much nostalgia, or if there’s a tool that produces too much. However, the main trends show that people who are more prone to nostalgia also have more psychological resources to counteract stress, or threats to self-esteem or loneliness.”
She explains that what Timehop and On This Day may actually promote is savouring:
“Savouring looks at how much people capture their experience in life. It’s about the capacity to savour positive outcomes and experience. What we’ve found is that the more people savour, the more nostalgic they are, which predicts how good they will feel from these memories.”
One of the keys to savouring is to share it, perhaps why we automatically want to upload photos at weddings, new babies and holidays. We’re trying to capture and spread the feeling of a fleeting moment, and the more people that see it, the more we can savour it.
Life Through a Lens
Sharing at every stage (anticipation, experience, reminiscence) helps enhance our enjoyment. But I don’t think the past we’ve lived online is as simple as that. If you’ve listened to as many Best of The ‘90s albums as I have in the last five years, you’ll know the charm of No Scrubs and Smells Like Teen Spirit does wear off. I wonder if we are about to do this to our memories too? Talking to Stevie Mackenzie-Smith, who has blogged at Discotheque Confusion since 2006, when she was 15, it’s clear that having instant access to so many reminders of your past self online can foster more than just nostalgia:
“Apps like Timehop, as well as Facebook itself, feel increasingly geared towards curating nostalgia,” Stevie told me. “It can trigger in us this deep emotion or fondness for a time that's passed, but really it's about these apps holding our attention as long as possible, and pushing us towards a black-hole of archival-scrolling.
“It encourages us to live in this pre-retrospective way,” Stevie added, “like having a photograph taken, and looking into the lens knowing that this real life moment will become another image distilled onto a friend's newsfeed, tomorrow, and maybe three years later.”
Glimpsing one of these photos isn’t likely to induce present-day FoMO, paranoia or a state of anxiety. But two or three, every day, for months on end? That could be harder to handle. It’s one thing to ignore Timehop the same way as your unwanted U2 album, but brushing past everyone else’s On This Day uploads is impossible.
Timehop’s Wegener will happily tell you the app is promoting “a service built for reminiscing”, but we haven’t ever dealt with memories in this way before. Some of the psychologists I spoke to hadn’t heard of either Timehop or On This Day, suggesting that while it’s fine for these apps to align themselves with the positive effects of a trip down memory lane, we’re dealing with something entirely different to a few drinks down the pub with your uni mates five years after graduating. Waking up to a delivery of our lives 1, 2, 3, 4, even 8 years ago can be a jarring way to deal with the present. It’s also not always welcome.
Beware the Rose-Tinted Glasses
“Constantly thinking about the past can be quite dangerous,” Jessica Spires, founder of LGM, a London-based mental health group for young adults, told me.
“When you look back at the past, there’s a tendency to look through rose-tinted glasses. More often than not, the mind focuses on the good bits and filters out the rest, so you only re-live the positive emotions associated with that experience. I know you’re thinking ‘that’s a good thing, right?’, but it can also have a detrimental impact on the present. People tend to look at their present situations much more analytically and often, much more negatively. So if you’re comparing your nostalgia-slathered past relationships with your current ones, it’s easy to see how that can be damaging.”
While On This Day has gently served to remind me that my best friends have stayed the same since joining Facebook in 2007, or the fact that I definitely don’t enjoy drunk-status-updating as much as I did at 19, it also can’t help but highlight the banality of it all. Two likes for some witticism about manspreading on the London Underground three years ago. Four comments about how much I’d miss a best friend that was moving away two years ago (we still talk every day). My feeling is that all this happened without Facebook, the world kept on spinning, and perhaps more would have happened if I hadn’t been online so much.
“That notion of nostalgia has become pretty definitive of contemporary youth culture in general” Jessica added, “but it can be difficult to enjoy and appreciate the present when you’re looking back at the past through those rose-tinted glasses, which is something our online interactions are encouraging more and more. Many mental health issues are characterised by an inability to interpret current events positively, and to see negatives in everything around them. So those nostalgia binges can trigger damaging thoughts.”
It turns out Don was right; it is a delicate and potent thing, and our understanding of nostalgia is only just catching up with things like Timehop and Facebook On This Day. But it’s also not the only side-effect you get assessing everything, all the time. We grew up this way, on here, online. Some days it would be better not to be reminded of that.