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25 January 2021updated 03 Feb 2021 5:51pm

Why does Big Tech want us to feel nostalgic?

Old memories construct our sense of self. But what if the way we remember them is being manipulated?

By Eleanor Peake

In 2011, a small start-up in New York launched a photo app. Well, something more like a social media archive. Every day the app curated a personalised gallery of memories collected from historic Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts. What were you doing exactly four years ago? Thanks to daily updates, users could simply log in and find out. Five years later Timehop had 12 million users. By 2017, it was too late: nostalgia had erupted.

Little did Timehop know, Facebook and Apple had already begun taking notes. “It just exploded,” Timehop’s chief executive, Matt Raoul, says. He recalls the moment he showed people the first prototype of the app: “It was one of those moments when you instantly knew you’d stumbled on something. People were so intrigued by it, and were immediately talking about what they remembered and who was there, and sending [ images] to friends who they were with at the time. It was clear that memories weren’t just a fun one-off idea for a product, but more a brand new medium. I think others saw how engaging that was and immediately wanted to replicate it.”

And replicate it they did. In March 2015, Facebook introduced its own archive feature, “On This Day”. Every morning Facebook users would receive a notification alerting them to old social media memories. Old friends, 21st birthdays, ex-boyfriends, the road you grew up on; family members who had recently died. 

It was a huge hit for engagement: in its test phase “On This Day” was visited by 90 million people. Users were hooked: returning every day to the platform to see how their past lives would be displayed. Then in 2017, Apple released iOS 10 for the iPhone. The iPhone’s built-in photo gallery would also have a “memory” function preinstalled. From now on, over 700 million people in the world were just one swipe away from the complicated and consuming feeling of nostalgia. 

But it wasn’t always like this. Up until the 19th century, a preoccupation with nostalgia was a psychological disorder, treated similarly to paranoia or hysteria. Even as recently as the 1980s, looking back on the past was considered ill-advised. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia “persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances”. 

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The name for nostalgia derives from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain), succinctly summarising this emotion’s bittersweet pull. It can be difficult to remember the happy times that we can’t relive. So why do tech companies want us to relive them so badly? 

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In 2013, around the same time Timehop exploded in popularity, the Southampton University professor Constantine Sedikides released a report. After almost a decade of research on nostalgia, Sedikides and his team concluded that the emotion had a profoundly positive impact on the mental health of the participants he studied. Inducing the emotion made people feel less lonely and more optimistic about the future. They felt connected to their past selves and by extension, their future selves.

It is not surprising, then, that tech companies capitalised on this positive social driver. “It is an example of classical conditioning,” says Sedikides. “By linking a positive emotion [induced via photos or similar] to devices, brands such as Apple and Facebook acquire positive qualities. Nostalgia is an ambivalent, albeit mostly positive, emotion,” says Sedikides. “It confers such psychological benefits as greater social connectedness, life meaningfulness, self-continuity [sense of connection between one’s past and present] and optimism.”
The psychologist Kyrstine Batcho has also researched nostalgia extensively. For her, the link between our devices and this intense emotion is obvious. “To the extent that old photos make us feel good, nostalgic reminders of our past can increase our attachment to our devices.” 

“In some cases, an old photo might elicit negative feelings, but overall we become more attached to our devices as they connect us to meaningful aspects of our past. However, that effect would lose its intensity if there weren’t enough diversity among the photos. Seeing the same photos too often would lessen their emotional impact.” 

This is how the pull of a memory feature becomes a cycle. “When you think about creating engagement with a product, it has two parts: enjoyment or value of the experience now, but also a call to action for repeated behaviour over time,” explains Amy Bucher, a design expert and author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change. “Leveraging personal memories fulfils both parts of the equation for tech companies. People have an investment in seeing their memories now, but that feeling of longing can drive them to continue to interact with Apple or Facebook so that they refresh the supply of memories.”  

And it isn’t just the craving to contribute to this digital museum that keeps us hooked, it’s feeling as if this museum is entirely your own. “Personalisation is a key component of compelling digital experiences in part because it hits the basic psychological needs that undergird motivation,” says Bucher. 

“When people have an online experience that feels incredibly personal, it helps them feel like their preferences and choices are being honoured, like their ‘work’ sharing photos and comments has had an impact of some sort, and like they are ‘seen’ for their unique experiences. Looking back at your own memories is a quick way to feel like all of your experiences have added up to a bigger and more meaningful story,” she adds. “Our brains thrive on that feeling.”

But there is a cost. By relying on these social media “moments” to retell our personal histories, we experience a sort of forced nostalgia. “Forced nostalgia might affect the accuracy of our memory. When we recall the pictures rather than the original event, we blend details of the original with parts of the experience of remembering it,” says Batcho. “Over time, people can confuse details of the two. For example, someone can start to think a person who sent them an old photo had been present in the original event.”

Eventually, the closing link between devices and our emotional lives could make the two synonymous. Kyrstine Batcho warns that this moment is already here: “The more we rely upon our devices to store, organise, and retrieve greater portions of our lives, the more likely it is that the devices become extensions of ourselves. Many people are already very stressed if they are separated from their tech. We feel as if we need to have our device near us at all times.”

The instinct to document and retell our stories is as old as the human experience. But playing with such a powerful emotion is a dangerous game; a game that will keep us logging back on for years to come.

This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy