Last year during the holiday season I sat in my family’s living room browsing Facebook on my iPhone while passively experiencing my brother’s Call of Duty marathon. If you were also using Facebook around this time, you likely remember the platform encouraging you to watch a “Year in Review” video that had been tailored to your specific account. The video compiled all of my most favored status updates and photographs of 2014 to obnoxiously upbeat music. I laughed at how cliché it was to consider the past year of my existence in such dramatized terms, negating a large part of my identity which is difficult to be condensed into social media appropriate content. As the avatar in my brother’s game was murdered by a spray of enemy bullets, I remember thinking: If we see a flashback of our lives when we die, would our re-play be sponsored by Facebook? Do we appreciate memories more when Big Data ideology, obtrusive and unavoidable, affirms they were also appreciated by everyone else?
Year in Review was a preview for a more complex service Facebook made public in March. Titled “On this Day,” every user can follow an internal link to access content they had posted on that same day every prior year. Succeeding the competing independent application Timehop—which compiles a user’s dated Facebook content in addition to Twitter and Instagram—On this Day encourages nostalgia through personalized rediscovery. To major companies like Facebook, nostalgia is no longer a pained feeling of moments lost, as romanticized by the likes of Proust, but an economized emotion embedded into an algorithmic infrastructure of surveillance and corporate dominance. As many of us hold profiles approaching a decade old, Facebook wants us to recognize its homogeny through reinforcing its popularity. In doing so, we begin to see Facebook as a platform for social affluence, mirroring capitalist ethics ever tied to a continual quest for profit.
Using On this Day exemplified monotony. I found that most of what Facebook considers to be my memories were actually highly performative or otherwise explicitly tailored sentiments aimed at specific audiences. I began recognizing patterns, not only in the types of content I was producing at specific times, but also in my ability to solicit the attention of the people my content was targeted to. Attention in this context is a “like” or a comment—a fleeting, impartial imprint of commonality that another user had gifted to me, likely prompting momentary euphoria if a greater connection to that person was so desired. We know this feeling all too well: when our crush acknowledges a selfie, when a distant colleague congratulates us on a career update, or that one time every year when practically everyone we have ever interacted with wishes us a happy birthday. Browsing the content itself is boring, repetitive, and largely unstimulating to revisit, but the communities we created and the scalability of our social media personalities distinguishes our day-to-day updating from that which merits tempestuous memorialization.
In a 2012 article for The Atlantic, media sociologist Nathan Jurgenson theorized that, much like a photographer who inherently sees the world as a potential photograph, a “Facebook Eye” enables users to assess specific moments of their lives as potential public updates. Jurgenson’s research rejects the sharp binaries of online and offline. There is only one reality, and the tools that guide our perception are often digital. Understanding that frequent usage of social media creates little distinction between the “physical” and the “virtual” becomes more important to the uprooting of nostalgia as a definitive concept: we do not live a “real” life to then filter our memories for public consumption—the action of filtering for public consumption is an extension of living, a memory within itself.
This isn’t a Millennial-specific ideology, even if the term “born digital,” used for the generation growing up alongside the rise of digital technologies, is becoming synonymous with networked connectivity. With Facebook surpassing one billion active users across all continents, from a governance perspective it would be impossible for the company to view every user as unique. Services like On this Day are efficient in the sense that they rely on the user to construct their individuality among a standardization of the masses.
Nostalgia is evolving. We remember a status update we posted that received dozens of likes, and we remember its context collapse—the precarious feeling that arises when people from various cliques group together for the sole purpose of recognizing us. Their profile pictures are compiled into a neat, calculated list, evincing a life lived socially and fully—a life not only of friendships, but of the emotional assurance afforded by this very archived data. Nostalgia is an amalgamation of human sentience becoming present from the past, automated in a value system designed specifically for the ephemeral. The delete button then acts as an antithesis of memory, alleviating the pain of public social rejection in a system designed only for a commemoration of prosperity.
I sometimes struggle with this, and not because I am fetishizing what it was like to live before Facebook, but mostly because there is seemingly no end to this Orwellian hellscape. “Logging off” isn’t an option when our livelihoods are based on the merits of our connections. When this livelihood is also entangled with relationships, a dependency originates through its colloquialism. What is less frequently talked about is competition, not only with other peers in our networks—which can be challenging and fun—but the competition we create against ourselves. The quantification of our content becomes a number we’ve associated with our presence: an achieved goal, a transparent worth. An inability to accrue this worth again can indicate an ineptitude, an anxiousness, a yearning to reflect back. Yet Facebook’s predictive algorithm promises us minimal anxieties—we’re always being recommended new friends—and if one can manipulate the system to entice and appease to all of them, one is more likely to accept Facebook as a vernacular platform purely for its seduction of success.
Chelsea Manning, a discharged US Army soldier and privacy activist currently serving a 35-year jail sentence for disclosing military documents, recently spoke with Paper Magazine about maintaining a sense of self under consistent corporate and government surveillance. She analyzed a friction between the natural inkling to maintain a genuine identity and the institutions of power that seek to usurp it from us, citing targeted advertising models on social media platforms as one way media corporations turn our data into capital. It’s apparent that when we post to Facebook the language we use is being tracked to better suggest products to us, restricting any semblance of authenticity in favor of placing us into buyer demographics. In light of this power play, being true to yourself is subversive and radical.
Is it possible to find consolation on social media and still maintain this inner truce? Nostalgia is sought by corporations as it allows consumers to feel a connection to larger cultural frameworks. As more people adopt self-branding practices, latching onto shared memories feels habitual. “I remember when” quickly transitions to “I remember feeling communion as this event was unfolding”—a byproduct of absorbing information publicly. There is a long history of nostalgia being used as an advertising tactic, which is consistently refreshed for whichever generation has the most spending power: the youth maturing into the financially promiscuous.
I didn’t watch the last Super Bowl, but I witnessed Missy Elliot’s triumphant comeback over a series of Tweets. And a few months ago, Kanye West waxed on the proliferation of capitalism in his MTV Video Music Awards speech, where the artist accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for his prolific career. Referring to his 2009 on-screen dispute with Taylor Swift, he stated: “You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award, ’cause it got them more ratings?” The controversy in question initially spurred when Swift received “Best Video” over Beyoncé and West hopped on stage to express his disapproval, which has long been debated as a protest against systematic racism in pop culture. Yet MTV saw the altercation as a ratings ploy, summoning the viewer’s nostalgia for a past cultural event away from the important criticality it represented in a clear effort to pique viewer curiosity. West was subtly forced to celebrate unfounded happiness upon reconciliation, as nothing is more marketable than rage repackaged as bliss.
It seems nostalgia is associated with happiness (not loneliness or aging) because it is a marketing tool, and we’re conditioned to feel happy when we consume products. Nostalgia is a preference of taste, signifying that we are part of a larger cultural collective. Only now, social media’s surveillance grants us instant access to the products we want, creating more potential happiness. Advertisers do not sell us nostalgia—they sell us our own tracked desires masquerading as pleasure, like a hybrid form of romanticism.
“I am not a born digital,” UK-based visual artist Penny Goring assures me in a conversation over e-mail, “I did not want my youth lost in the 20th century.” Goring’s visual anthology DELETIA that launched as part of the New Museum and Rhizome’s Poetry as Practice is a haunting tribute to the artist’s life. Images of her former self are cut and rearranged upon images of nude models, inverted flowers, and rag dolls. Set to Irish funeral music, she includes looping .gifs of an industrial factory—a machine making donuts, a machine spurting liquid to create something unknown—and her subtle references to the hidden mechanics of consumerism become an analogy not only for the death of youth but for the impossibility of personal growth in an era that esteems cyclical replenishment. Less about digital market disruption and more about synchronicity, the self is rendered a prism that wards off the ghostly promises of data immortality as much as it fragments the lived experiences that make up the whole of a person. We are taught that we will age out of passion and sexuality; we are taught to fear this day as much as we fear the youth that emblazon so well the lives we may have already lived. Using her age as a platform for empowerment, Goring teaches us that it does not matter when an image of ourselves is published, but that it has been disclosed fearlessly from the economy of nostalgia. The body holds inherent obsolescence, like an iPhone or a Facebook service, but selfhood cannot be scheduled for depletion. The self is not a product to be upgraded, but an archive to be cherished, with or without reminders from Facebook. “DELETIA is a way of protecting myself, forgiving myself, making peace, and coming to terms. I am the sum of everything I was, am, and will be; it’s all of me existing at once.”