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“Nostalgia on social media: why it's time to quit our constant backwards glances”

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Writer Alice-May Purkiss questions our insatiable appetite for nostalgia and probes whether constant backwards glances to what happened On This Day might be doing us more harm than good.


When was the last time you logged into Facebook and hit the ‘On This Day’ feature for a trip down memory lane? Or loaded up Timehop on your phone while munching on your cereal, to be reminded of exactly what you were telling your friends and followers you’d had for breakfast this time last year? Or five years ago? Or seven years ago?

We’re a generation obsessed with nostalgia.

So much of our life is being recorded on social media that our past is significantly more accessible than those of the generations that have come before us. No longer is it a case of pulling out the old family albums and flicking through awkward snaps of you in the bath with your siblings, Memory Lane is now accessible at the click of a button.


Read more: What happens when we take a two-week detox from social media


If, like most people, you’ve had Facebook for a while, you’ll know all about this. The networking site’s On This Day feature, introduced in March 2015, serves up your past status updates, wall posts and photographs, with a notification nudge most mornings.

It reminds you of who you became friends with on a specific day, shows you photographs of the person you were when you were 18 – or the friends you’ve left behind – and creates nifty little videos: a friendly memento of times gone by.

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"Memory Lane is now accessible at the click of a button."

But, back when we were 18, social media was new, interesting and we were still learning what to do with it. Do you really want to be reminded of the person you were back then? The very same person who might have shared “is wondering what to have for dinner tonight” or “having a MAD night at Tiger Tiger – so battered – LOLZ” from uni days when you woke up covered in sick, with one stiletto still on and having lost your passport? (Happened to a friend…)

The often-Instagrammed quote, “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way”, reminds us that concentrating on the past can prevent you moving forward. At time of writing, the most popular version of this quote on Pinterest has 30,000-plus repins – but despite the sentiment, it seems we are still looking backwards. Moving forward is significantly harder when you receive daily notifications that dredge up the past.


Read more: Lucy Mangan lifts the veil on the social media illusion


And these apps aren’t human. They don’t know that you don’t want to see bad memories, recently deceased friends or family members, or flashbacks to times in your life you’d rather forget – unless you tell them.

In October last year, Facebook introduced measures allowing users to filter the content they see with the ability to block specific users or dates from the nostalgia show, but it’s an opt-out system, rather than opt in.

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“Don’t look back, you’re not going that way”

Facebook has certainly come up against some criticism for the feature. Earlier this year, 23-year-old Scarlett Scalzo, a student in Austin, Texas, was harshly reminded that Mother’s Day was just around the corner, months after her mother had died unexpectedly. She wrote, “Don’t worry Facebook, I know Mother’s Day is coming. Painfully aware. Thanks for the wake up reminder,” on the network later that day.

For others though, On This Day a is a more welcome snapshot into a time in their life they’ve long forgotten – reminding them of faded friendships that may have been strong and intense at the time and acting as a prompt to get in touch with those who have fallen out of your life.

Psychotherapist Hilda Burke says that our focus on nostalgia and notes several flaws in using technology to remember the past in this way.

She explains: “The fact that most of our memories are now documented and stored digitally definitely has an impact on how we view past events but also how much we’re actually ‘present in the present’.


Read more: Which social media platform is best for your emotional well-being?


“Breakfasts, dates, weddings, TV series that pre-social media might have drifted out of our consciousness are now being dredged up either by friends or in a more automated way by our social media channel of choice. Can we really be living the moment if we’re constantly referring back to past events? Why do we need to know what was happening on this day five years ago?

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"Most of our memories are now documented and stored digitally"

“There are so many ways this can make us feel unhappy – one is imagining you were happier then than you are now which only serves to make you feel even more miserable in your present situation.

“Alternatively you see a picture which reminds you of a time you were very sad, but rather than it triggering gratitude for being in a different situation now, it could perhaps awaken those old feelings.” 

So how do we strike a balance? A little dose of nostalgia is good for reminding us of times gone by, but too much of a good thing can be harmful.

Maybe it’s time we switch off the On This Day notifications, stop focusing so much on the old memories and concentrate on making new ones.

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