Nostalgia vs. Anxiety on Social Media

When Facebook came on the scene, the most attractive features on the platform for me were photo albums and life events. These two features in combination gave the user the ability to build a timeline of their life. Every trip that you go on, place that you visit, and dinner that you eat can be documented for the present and archived for the future. The photos and events were arranged as milestones that the user chose to retain when they told their story. The digitized nature of this data enabled the creation of works that were out of reach for the ordinary scrapbooker or the amateur video editor: The personalized Facebook “Lookback” videos, which were generated for Facebook’s 10th anniversary, were the biggest “proof-of-concept” of a world which was digitizing at a fast pace. I feel that Facebook was at “peak utility” back then. Nostalgia was the currency that the platform traded in effortlessly. Product managers at Facebook intuitively understood the value that they were creating in their users’ lives. Looking at the Lookback video is not like looking back at photo albums from a decade ago because in the latter experience there is no curation. However, Facebook’s usage is on the decline. Platforms that focus on creating Anxiety in their users’ minds are on the rise. Did something fundamental change?

I really liked my personalized Lookback video released in 2014 and I must have watched it at least a dozen times, noticing new details every time I re-watched it. Facebook used technology to build something that could not have been built without it; they produced something for everyone which was, until then, out of reach for amateurs. I can say this without any qualification: Facebook was at its peak utility at that point in time. I wonder if I would have continued to use Facebook if it had stood out as the only platform that focused on nostalgia, among a gaggle of platforms that focused on making people anxious by showing them what everyone was else doing right now; a wave of products that ostensibly began with Snapchat Stories.

The most popular platforms of today are good at sharing “the current moment.” They deal in the currency of Anxiety. They force their users to share the present, which fuels an urgent need to do something interesting. Why did social media become a place where archiving lost its value and sharing the present with a large audience was the primary objective?

The popular platforms of this new era are Tik Tok, Instagram, and Snapchat. Tik Tok is the only platform that tries to get its users to produce content that is widely shared and holds for a relatively long period of time1. Instagram and Snapchat are completely invested in the “right now.” Their investment in the “now” is different from the historical goals of Facebook. On Facebook, you share what’s happening now for the benefit of the future. When you create a Life Event on Facebook, that event stays there forever, just as the event changes you, the event changes your Facebook timeline. When you add a photo to your Instagram Story, it disappears in 24 hours. Nothing you do on these platforms has any lasting impact anymore. Archiving has become a thing of the past. Even in the cases where content goes viral, the phenomenon has a dizzyingly short lifespans2.

There is no question about the currency that is valued higher in capitalism. Nostalgia has its place in society, but Anxiety is where the money is at. When things are going to disappear in 24 hours, you probably want to consume them right away, procrastinating for a few hours. A newspaper that publishes every 10 minutes will have significantly higher turnover than one that publishes every day, as long as people are interested in the content and the content producers can work at that rate. With everyone signing up to produce and consume content, both those conditions are met in the “push notification newspaper” world.

Anxiety (in my opinion) is the manifestation of scarcity that is sensed in a system. There are limited seats in a movie theater and if you really want to watch a movie, watch it as soon as you can and book the ticket as soon as they are available. Artificial scarcity marketing techniques work well for brick-and-mortar businesses like Apple (which used to have cash sales) and even publishing houses that used to release books that people would wait for several hours to get their hands on. (Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes to mind.) “Don’t put things off because you might lose the opportunity to ever experience them.” This insight into the effect that enforcing scarcity would have on their users’ minds was the driving principle behind the product that started this modern wave of platforms: Snapchat Stories.3

Archiving the past has been delegated to other platforms like Google Photos and Apple’s iCloud. These services also attempt to create artsy videos using your pictures, grouping them by location and the people that you are with. The data that Google or Apple have about your pictures is an insignificant subset of the data that Facebook had about the same pictures. These auto-generated videos can’t be compared to what Facebook created.

Facebook had the ability to figure out what was important to you. Facebook knew about your most liked post. The more life-changing your announcement, the more people are going to engage with it; the more people will congratulate you, and so on4. Apple and Google have no idea about the importance of any life event or even about the presence of a life event behind a set of pictures, that were taken in close spacial or temporal proximity. The effects of this ignorance are clear when one sees iCloud’s attempts to build videos. Every video looks the same. They are templates rendered with different photos. There’s no personalization. There’s no understanding of how important a set of pictures was to the user. Even the name of the auto-generated video is just an amalgamation of the month that pictures were taken in and the places where the pictures were taken.

Will the value of archiving rise again? After all, the Sepia tone filter is a mainstay on most Camera applications today and people still post old pictures to Instagram Stories on Mothers’ Day.

I don’t think archiving will make a significant comeback. Human nature has not changed. I will not argue that point.

But the thought process behind nostalgia has changed as people understood how to use the online tools that were at their disposal. Online tools prefer things that can be safely publicized. The ability to share content is key for the creator of successful5 online content. Private experiences have their own space, but those spaces are an afterthought in modern platforms. Experiences that create Nostalgia are private. Experiences that create Anxiety can be publicized. A Lookback video is interesting to the subject and the handful of people who are closest to them. A Snapchat highlight about their recent trip to Europe is mildly interesting to almost everyone.

A new platform might come around which tries to work with nostalgia and convince its users that their feelings about the past are more important than others’ admiration of the present. Personally, I am pessimistic about the return of nostalgia because the success of modern platforms has convinced me that we continue to disregard Seneca’s advice from over 2000 years ago.

Don’t take pleasure in the majority’s approval.6

  1. Everything is relative to the average attention span of the modern user which is at a dismal low. 

  2. Some trends evade explanation with their absurdity. 

  3. Ironically, Snapchat lost to Instagram because it could not address the scarcity problem that it was facing: the scarcity of users. 

  4. I am putting this here as a historical view of the platform’s operation. I haven’t used the platform lately, so my views about the posts that gain likes and engagement might be outdated. However, I believe that the basic assumption that more people will congratulate you the larger the importance of an event still holds true, irrespective of how behavior might have changed online. 

  5. Success has different yardsticks of measurement. Here, I will simply equate success (in the mind of the content creator) to the number of likes that a post eventually gets. 

  6. Letter 7. Letters From A Stoic (Seneca)