On Nostalgia

Let’s dispense with the obvious Proust quote right now:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.</

On remembering

“There is no greater sorrow Than to recall a happy time When miserable.”

  • Dante Alighieri

Last week I signed up for insta-nostalgia service timehop, which promises to keep you updated with your tweets, facebooks posts, instagram picturs and foursquare pictures from 365 days before. I’ve been using superficially similar service twitshift for a while now, and really enjoyed the experience of seeing what @old_felix_cohen was up to. Twitshift is a service that creates a twitter account that tweets your tweets from a year ago; they suggest that you make it private, and only follow it yourself, which I agree entirely with.

But something went awry very quickly for me with timehop’s service; after just two days emails, I unsubscribed, and sent a grumpy tweet about the copywriting on the email, having been chided for not posting in high enough volume. Now, that presents an issue for me; why should I post more than one update a day; the idea that volume is an indicator of how ‘good’ you are at social media is absurd. Some of my favourite twitter accounts are amazingly low traffic, but astoundingly high quality when they do tweet. In fact, I tend to unfollow high volume tweeters (and twitter, it should be noted, is where i tend to see foursquare and instagram activity too) because they swamp the timeline.

Following 50k people is an effective way to build relationships with anyone who’s dim enough to believe you read over 1,000,000 toots a day.

Merlin Mann @hotdogsladies November 2, 2009

But anyway, that feels like a trite observation; it’s a common assumption that volume on social media is equivalent to quality; but come on, snide observations do not great copy make, and as Jonathan Wegener (co-founder at timehop) pointed out in a long twitter conversation with me and Dan Williams (@iamdanw), they’re aware of this issue and are sorting it out. So, tick, problem solved, I hope. It genuinely seems like a misstep, rather than intentional flippancy.

@felix_cohen @iamdanw The quips are something we struggle with. It’s often with very emotional content so it can be great or terrible

Jonathan Wegener @jwegener January 13, 2012

@felix_cohen we just had a copywriter go through and write a bunch more of them – we made him make them all uplifting..not insulting.

Jonathan Wegener @jwegener January 13, 2012

However, as I thought more about it, I realised that the cheeky copywriting wasn’t the root issue for me; sure, that’s not for me, but I appreciate why it’s there and maybe who it’s for.

Memento Mori

“Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you’ll die!”

Tertullian, Apologeticus

Hans Holbein the Younger - The_Ambassadors

The memento mori is a rich tradition for those who create; remember that you shall die, and your creations are what may live on. These are the facets of memory and nostalgia; a reminder of what was, what was felt, an opportunity to compare what is to what could have been, and a nudge to strive for better.

Nostalgia can be comforting or scary, it can be unbidden or designed for, but it is a powerful thing that can pounce on any of us.

Nostalgia is a rush, the involuntary memory that rushes over us and bodily transports us to another time. It’s terrifying, and awesome, and difficult to manage.

And that’s why I think we need to be really cautious about how we mine the archives of the real-time web. As we learn to disclose more, and learn about who sees what, the opportunity for our historical unbidden thoughts to catch us unaware is growing, and we are going to have to learn to design for that.

On digests and digesting

But there’s a deeper disconnect between twitshift and timehop, and it’s the digest.

Twitshift is so incredibly emotive because, well, it makes year-ago-me a person, with emotional struggles, successes, grumpy asides and awful puns. I don’t remember most of these tweets, but damn, some of them can be affective. The thing is, I never expect them, but on seeing them, I really am often briefly transported to that moment. Sometimes I remember what I said 20 minutes later, and wait on that, sometimes year-ago-me has travails and difficulties that I know he’ll overcome, and sometimes he has great success that cheers me up and encourages me. What he does best, though, is remind me how much happens in a year, and how trivial concerns can be 12 months later. And that’s glorious. It is a wonderful memento mori, reminding me of the passage of time without pushing memory at me. The perfect involuntary memories, gently pushed into my awareness.

Timehop (and to a lesser extent, TimeCapsule) send you a digest instead. Mostly, that’s because of restrictions in the media they’ve chosen. Facebook probably won’t allow year-ago-me accounts, because where’s the ad revenue in that, and it doesn’t quite fit into their interface as a concept. Flickr, instagram, foursquare all have this problem to some extent, though I think instagram could be the easiest to solve it for, as it shares the stream of twitter views.

Facebook Timeline instead tries to design for nostalgia, and, you know what, it works pretty well. As Matt Ogle pointed out (obliquely, and I hope i don’t misinterpret here);

We’re gonna need architectures for forgetting

— Matthew Ogle (@flaneur) September 22, 2011

If anything, the problem with facebook timeline is it could be too overwhelming. The list of life events, like major illnesses, could just be too emotive to review…nostalgia needs to be summonable, but not invasive.

@felix_cohen @iamdanw and we’ve had the opposite – a guy who had one post about his dog dying and our service made fun of him.

— Jonathan Wegener (@jwegener)

But the digest itself, as form, is naturally intrusive; it’s a package that says (certainly with it’s roots as mailing list management practice), “you’ve decided not to deal with events in this context as they happen, so here’s a overview of everything from this day/week/month”). And that’s great for a mailing list, where the majority of discussions may not affect you, or to make sure that interruptions are kept to a minimum (the ongoing battle of modern communications).

And therein lies the problem with digests of nostalgia; nostalgia works when unbidden, when it catches you unaware. It can never be intentional, it can never be summoned. You can introduce the opportunity for it, as with twitshift, but to sign up to a service that neatly packages my memories and doles them out for me to wake up to each morning? No thanks, it’s just not for me.

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