I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway,” Eric Meyer wrote on Facebook last Christmas Eve. The social networking site’s automated Year in Review feature had just flashed an image of his recently deceased 6-year-old daughter, Rebecca, set against a celebratory backdrop of ribbons and balloons.
“For those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year,” Meyer wrote. “It feels wrong.”
Ours is an age of unending remembrance, where memories — particularly photos — are omnipresent, where nostalgia feels increasingly redundant. Meyer’s frustration comes from a source of pain, but the phenomenon is much bigger. A critical ingredient for experiencing wistfulness — distance — is being eroded. Each glance at a smartphone or surf on the Web risks an intrusive visit from the past and makes forging a fresh future an even greater challenge.
Though Meyer’s case was not the result of malice, but rather, as he later termed it, “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty,” its effects were just as devastating. The numerous responses his post elicited showed that this was not an infrequent occurrence. “This happened to me and my partner as well,” empathized a commenter. “First thing on Christmas morning he sees a photo prominently displayed of a former partner on his deathbed last spring. An emotional tsunami resulted, all Christmas plans canceled, and we spent the day coping with a crisis re-lived.”
“My timeline felt much the same,” another wrote. “Starting with a picture of my cousin who died in a horrific accident on Christmas Eve last year and rounding out my year highlighting my failed IVF cycles in my 6 year quest to become a parent.”
These virtual trips down memory lane are targeted towards “the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It doesn’t take other use cases into account,” Meyer wrote. And he is right: When we sign up to social media sites and populate them with positive memories, we do not contemplate that these rolling personal chronicles will sour, and that they will be foisted upon us at a later date without our consent.
Social media’s function as a conveyor belt of bite-sized nostalgia places its members right in the heart of this digital quandary, allowing anything you’ve ever entered to be spat back out on a whim. Facebook regularly launches features aimed at reopening doors that once seemed closed, most recently, in the form of its “On This Day” service, which offers up a daily dose of personal history by marking what you shared on the site on a particular date in years gone by. Whether that’s a photo of a lost loved one or a former partner, or even a previously innocuous status about a friendship no longer intact, these little nudges jolt.
Feelings of nostalgia have been around forever, but the English term — a portmanteau from the Greek “nostos,” meaning homecoming, and “algos,” pain — was first introduced in 1688, appearing in a medical paper written by Swiss student Johannes Hofer to explain the notion of this kind of wistfulness/longing. While the symptoms may have remained the same over the centuries, though, its manifestations have changed. We no longer reach for that tattered shoe box stuck beneath the bed, holding letters or photographs, carefully selected so that only the most meaningful earns a place in this finite space. (There’s a website called Shoebox that offers “free unlimited photo storage, so you can rediscover your photos anywhere.”)
Yet, while society is constantly urging us to remember — through art, history books, Polaroids snapped and faded — little focus is placed on the importance of forgetting. Distance and forgetting are key components of the nostalgia cocktail.
When it comes to managing our online lives, we are still in our infancy: We have not yet developed a chasm wide enough to entomb our pictorial woes without fear of their resurrection, nor an algorithm solid enough to ensure a memory is fully erased. One swipe, tap, or click, and everything you’ve ever wished to forget can be dredged up in an instant, without sufficient mechanisms to manage such eventualities. Their effects can be shattering.
Chicago artist Jason Lazarus’s project “Too Hard to Keep,” in which he collects photographs deemed too harrowing to hold onto by their owners, offers a kind of solace to those caught in the grip of their own memories. “Images have the possibility to continually traumatize,” Lazarus explains of his submissions, which have reached well into the thousands since he started the project in 2010.
Some of the photos are immediately agonizing to the unwitting observer: a pet’s last moments atop the vet’s table, a blood-stained sheet, a soldier stroking the hair of a sick patient. Meanwhile, there are others that seem entirely benign — Christmas lights, a ravine, a torn set of photo booth stills — images that appear so innocent, yet are so sad they cannot be kept.
“The instinct to share and be social is so elemental. It’s always been that way in photography,” Lazarus notes. “But there’s a different kind of speed and reach that’s happening now, and less control over what goes up, and we are complicit in this.”
Living in such close proximity to our memories isn’t only problematic when they’re bad but can prove troublesome if they’re good, too. How can we avoid comparison — jealousy, even — with our former selves when happy moments are in endless supply at every login? There’s another inherent wistfulness to seeing reminders of better times. Constant reminders of those times makes moving on harder. “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days,” writer Doug Larson says.
For Neel Burton, psychiatrist and author of “The Psychology of Human Emotions,” it’s meaningful to deal with the past at whichever point we may encounter it in order to handle the present. “Nostalgia is fundamental to human nature and how we’re wired emotionally. You can keep the past alive and that’s very reassuring,” he says. “But perhaps we move on too fast — the world is accelerating with technology and people are always busy, living from minute to minute on social media. We’re less emotionally competent today than we used to be, and that’s partly why coping with our feelings is very difficult now, because people are living in a technological, modern world where they are irrelevant or superfluous.”
Burton says our contemporary, less religiously strict upbringings have made us less emotionally resilient. The Bible, he notes, includes morality tales and instruction on how to manage certain emotions, like nostalgia. “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this,” warns the book of Ecclesiastes.
It would be remiss to imagine that this omnipresence of personal history won’t also alter future. “One is always at home in one’s past,” as Vladimir Nabokov wrote, but a life in which we may never leave the front door surely can’t do us any good.
So how to find a modern intermediary for dealing with darker moments that doesn’t require eschewing every digital outlet on the planet? Neurological techniques, such as training the brain to eradicate trauma, may prove successful for those who want to move on. That, however, does not offer the kind of middle ground between incessant reminders and absolute erasure that must be achievable to experience true nostalgia in a digitized world.
Because it is impossible to completely erase those moments when that song plays, or we come across an old birthday card, or we bump into someone who reminds us of what might have been. For the most part, though, we have relinquished control of when we choose to access the past, and these natural interjections are far outnumbered by reams of unforced digital reminders that will, just as in Meyer’s case, leave us both emotionally winded and wounded. “We log on, and it’s free, but of course there’s a cost,” Lazarus concludes. “The thing about the Internet is that it remembers more than you think it will, and it destroys more than you think it will.”
Charlotte Lytton is a writer in London. Follow her on Twitter @charlottelytton.