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Facebook adds nostalgia to its newsfeeds

Facebook has introduced a new feature called On This Day. It takes members back to old photos and other content posted earler.
Facebook has introduced a new feature called On This Day. It takes members back to old photos and other content posted earler. Bloomberg

Social media platforms are obsessed with the now, the new and the “trending.” We are pummeled by the thunderous, unending cascade of breaking news.

And because that’s stressful and can be overwhelming, tech companies have sought to manufacture a solution to a problem that they themselves created: They want to return your sense of the past.

“Consuming memories from the past and resharing them rewires our relationships,” Facebook’s Jonathan Gheller told Techcrunch. “It really reconnects me in a profound and beautiful way.”

Facebook has announced a new feature called “On This Day,” which will surface past status updates, photos and posts you’ve been tagged in to a designated page that only you can see. The feature is rolling out gradually, and not all users have access yet. (If you don’t want access, too bad: There’s apparently no way to entirely opt out of it.)

Facebook says it’s been testing the feature for several years, right in step with other tech firms that exist to surface old content. Timehop, the app that “helps you celebrate the best moments of the past,” finished 2014 with 12 million users and claims to be the fastest-growing mobile start-up in New York.

Myspace tried to lure users back by reminding them how many of their old photos it had. According to some reports, in fact, Myspace owes its continued existence in part to Throwback Thursday: millions of people return to the site each week for old pictures to share on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. (#Tbt stats, as of Wednesday morning: 325 million all-time Instagrams, 1.6 million tweets since March 1.)

It makes sense that people would want to use social media this way. For many of us, social media functions almost like an external brain: It’s where we archive old photos and relationships – memories, basically – and where we return to access them.

Things get really weird, though, when someone else, or something else, begins rummaging through our memories for us.

In December, Facebook found itself apologizing to the victims of fires, the parents of dead children and assorted other grieving/aggrieved users when its “Year in Review” feature displayed pictures that they found painful or unpleasant.

Truth be told, that’s only one of the attendant weirdnesses of the social media throwback: There’s also a lot of evidence, for instance, that the Internet somehow damages or interferes with memory, and that social archiving causes us to recall events differently, and that all of these layers of subtle distortion play out in our conception of our own identities.

“Facebook’s emphasis upon memory, both personal and collective, allows for an escape from history and, therefore, linearity, order and narrative,” the media scholar Joanne Garde-Hansen once wrote.

Maybe “On This Day” is an attempt to restore that narrative – but it’s a narrative that Facebook itself helped write.

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