On This Day

“It’s a way to pass the time while I’m waiting.” That’s what I had told a friend in his seventies recently, when he asked me how I managed to keep up with social media. And that’s what I was doing recently during the ten-minute break between my first and second classes, scrolling distractedly through my Facebook feed, when I was suddenly brought up short.

The reason? I was staring at one of those automatically generated posts that confronts you with something shared on the same date a number of years ago: “Charlie, we care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this post from 5 years ago.” But I didn’t, particularly. Although the six months between October, 2010 and April, 2011 were not devoid of experiences I treasure, I mostly remember that span as a blur of confusion and disillusionment, in which my normal capacity for self-control was temporarily suspended.

That was also the period in which Souciant came into existence. As it happens, I had been planning to spend the hour in which my students were completing their midterms — a rare window of opportunity without distraction — working on a piece commemorating our five-year anniversary, which falls this March. My plan was to revisit everything we published in the weeks following our launch and reflect on what has and hasn’t changed during the half decade since. Being reminded of what else was going on in my life back then, however, made it difficult to execute.

For someone who is usually conscientious about keeping his dates in order, the idea that I had failed to remember this overlap disturbing. Although I have a wealth of detailed memories from March, 2011, both good and bad, they had apparently been sorted into distinct timelines in my mind, cordoned off from each other as if to prevent contamination. More troubling still was the realization that I had completely failed to register this sorting process.

It used to be that when I wanted to rekindle recollections of relatively recent experiences, I would consult the archive from my Live Journal blog, which I updated, on average, several times per week for the better part of a decade. Even now, although I haven’t posted regularly for several years, I still turn to it whenever I want confirmation of what I was doing during the period in which it was my primary means of sharing with the outside world. No matter how much I pride myself on having a good memory, I know that it isn’t as accurate as it was in my youth, in part because there is simply so much more for me to remember.

But when I visited what I had shared on Live Journal back in March, 2011, I was shocked to discover that I had never mentioned our Souciant launch there at all. And the entries I had posted were so heavily coded that it was painfully difficult for me to excavate what I had really been trying to communicate between the lines. While only five years have passed since then, it might as well have been fifty. Reconstructing the context for each one, I felt like a scholar trying to piece together fragments composed in a dead language.

As I investigated further, it became apparent that this was precisely the time during which I stopped updating my blog regularly. There would be period attempts, increasingly fitful, to revive it over the next few years, but they all seem forced in retrospect. Once a good portion of what you post on a social media platform is a commentary on why you no longer post the way you once did, it’s a safe bet that you are no longer comfortable there. I periodically witness this phenomenon in my less active Facebook friends. But it came as a real surprise to realize that, despite my self-conception as a person dedicated to preserving the connection between past and present, I had clearly gone through the same sort of “break-up” with Live Journal.

When Facebook inaugurated their On This Day feature — on this day, March 24th, in 2015 — they were obviously trying to fight back, not only against Timehop, but also against the tendency people have to flee a platform after it has lost its novelty. By reminding their customers about all they have stored there over the years, they hope to convey the value of retaining access to those off-loaded memories. I wonder, though, whether this rhetorical strategy works the way they would like it to.

Like Google, Apple and the other upstart platforms that have enabled people to make copies of their personal lives in the cloud, Facebook needs to make the case for continuity. It’s an argument that invokes both reason — “Why wouldn’t you want easy access to the information that has mattered to you most?” — and emotion — “Think how terrible you would feel to lose the traces of your existence!” Certainly, these are points I have made myself, when trying to persuade acquaintances not to delete their accounts. Yet if someone as dominated by the archival impulse as I am can drift away from a social media platform, as eventually happened with Live Journal, there’s a good chance that the counter-argument exerts a powerful sway on most users.

Consider the way in which the “memories” Facebook automatically reposts are framed: “We care about you and the memories you share here. We thought you’d like to look back.” It doesn’t take a genius to perceive that this caring is far removed from the sort that true friends show each other. The company has amassed fabulous wealth by monetizing the desire to share. And their continued success depends on the inconceivably vast amount of data that it has ended up controlling as a result not becoming outdated. But it isn’t just the recognition of this cynical motive that threatens to undermine the argument for continuity.

While there is no doubt that nostalgia is a significant force in the contemporary world — the kind of material searched for on sites like YouTube and eBay demonstrates as much — it is also increasingly apparent that many people feel overwhelmed by the degree to which their past can be almost instantaneously summoned with the help of technology. Although we may like to look back, we are wary of seeing more than we are prepared to deal with.

Perhaps that is why Facebook has configured its On This Day feature so that it is difficult to spend too much time doing “research” on one’s own past, deliberately avoiding the sort of stable calendar-based archive that other platforms make available. At times, it almost seems as though they were striving for a SnapChat effect, whereby content disappears soon after it is encountered unless a concerted effort is made to prolong its availability. Yet this restriction of access to one’s “memories” has a different resonance than the evanescence of exchanges that are happening in real time.

The very fact that Facebook keeps reminding users of the fact that it can retrieve their pasts in this way only reinforces the impression that they are engaging in a kind of emotional blackmail. The company doesn’t provide access to the tools they would need to look back if, when, and how far they wish to. Instead, it confronts them with content they might or might not be prepared to cope with, on terms that leave them feeling largely powerless.

To be sure, the feature has been embraced by many regular users. A sizable percentage of them were already posting archival content now and then, particularly for Throwback Thursday, before it debuted, which was no doubt a motivation for Facebook to promote nostalgic uses of its platform. It would be interesting, though, to see how many On This Day prompts are passed over in social media silence. Even though I am more predisposed than most people to share my personal history as history, I make less than 10% of my automatically regurgitated memories public. And I suspect that very few of my “friends” on Facebook pass on more than that.

It could be argued, I suppose, that the lack of control that the On This Day feature gives users is actually what makes it valuable. Human memory isn’t just fallible in a technical sense, but also subject to the distortions of desire. When users are confronted by content that they did not consciously wish to confront, there’s always a chance that something positive may result from the unexpected suturing of past to present. Certainly, that’s one of the reasons why people are reluctant to throw things away, consigning them instead to their personal archives for later rediscovery.

But there is a crucial difference between such archives and On This Day. When a corporation stores the record of your past activity, as Facebook does, it isn’t for altruistic reasons. Facebook cares about “the memories you share” because they add depth to the profiles of each user from which it is constantly seeking to make money. The more traces of a person’s desires and aversions that are on file, the more detailed the map of their interactions with other people when they are not passing their time on social media, the more likely it is that a sales pitch — or a government investigation — will be on the mark.

Even when we try not to think about this behind-the-scenes reality, some part of us remains aware that we aren’t getting something for nothing, that the price we pay for using platforms like Facebook is estrangement from our own experiences. The technological externalization of memories may have benefits, freeing our minds up for more important tasks than, say, the recalling of phone numbers. But when the result is that our own past confronts us as someone else’s means of making a profit, it makes sense that an impulse to free ourselves from this bondage would start to stir inside us. Clearly, corporations like Facebook, Google and Apple are hoping that the psychological price their users would pay for losing easy access to their electronic footprints will seem too steep for them to simply walk away. It will be interesting to see whether they are right.

(NOTE: This is the first piece in a series that will investigate the concept of recent history)

Photo courtesy of Kim Nicolini