On this Nostalgic Day

Facebook’s On This Day feature claiming to care about the author. Photo: Diaan Mynhardt

When writing the first post on this blog I experienced a moment of nostalgia for the first ever computer programme I wrote. Why did I indulge myself like that? It’s quite probably because remembering those early accomplishments made me feel good; it added meaning to my life. At least, that’s what the research says[1]. Websites like Facebook understand the research behind nostalgia, and are not afraid to use that knowledge to reel you in.

It’s a cleverly designed ploy.

What is nostalgia? Most experts seem to agree that it’s an emotion[2]. Tim Wildschut[3], professor of psychology at the University of Southampton, along with his colleagues, describe how nostalgia makes us feel happier, increases our self-esteem, and boosts the bonds we have with others[4]. As if that’s not enough, nostalgia has been linked to comfort, the promotion of psychological growth, and (my personal favourite) nostalgia even provides existential meaning to our lives[1].

Existential! Meaning!

Please Don’t Go!

Facebook, never satisfied with the hours we already spend on their network, introduced the On This Day feature in 2015. This feature clearly plays to our tendency toward nostalgia. That it’s a cleverly designed ploy to make us like a network that we likely already don’t trust is a feeling that I simply can’t shake. Let’s not forget that it has a desperate need for us to have our eyes on its adverts.

Could this not go terribly wrong?.

Facebook’s previous dabbling with nostalgia led to a backlash against the network. Their Year in Review feature, which accidentally exposed users to posts about ex-lovers and deceased loved ones, had users up in arms. To prevent the new On This Day feature from similarly angering users, the new feature suggests heavily curated content for users to post. Online tech news website TechCrunch explains[5]:

Facebook built special rules into the On This Day algorithm to protect people’s feelings. If it knows you listed someone as your romantic partner, then removed them, it won’t show you posts including them in your News Feed. It will also avoid displaying memories of friends who’ve passed away.

Are we now entering an era where our heavily self-curated online personas will now be supplemented by algorithms? These are algorithms we don’t understand and don’t control. A website with a track history of unethical behaviour, they happily manipulated user emotions without a whiff of informed consent[6], has begun offering to take our personal expression out of our hands. Is our nostalgia to be our achilles heel?  Could this not go terribly wrong?

Diaan, we care about you and the memories that you share here.
– Facebook


Routledge C, Arndt J, Wildschut T, et al. The past makes the present meaningful: nostalgia as an existential resource. J Pers Soc Psychol 2011;101:638–52. [PubMed]
Sedikides C, Wildschut T, Baden D. Nostalgia: Conceptual Issues and Existential Functions. In: The Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology. New York 2004. 200–15.
Dr R Tim Wildschut, PhD. University of Southampton. https://www.southampton.ac.uk/psychology/about/staff/timw.page (accessed 22 Apr2017).
Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Arndt J, et al. Nostalgia: content, triggers, functions. J Pers Soc Psychol 2006;91:975–93. [PubMed]
Facebook’s Timehop Clone “On This Day” Shows You Your Posts From Years Ago. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2015/03/24/facehop/ (accessed 24 Apr2017).
Verma I. Editorial expression of concern: Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2014;111:10779. [PubMed]

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