Nostalgia in the Age of Social Media: Identity, Meaning & Connection

[This talk was originally given at Up.front March 14th, 2017 under the working title “Nostalgia in the Age of Social Media: Identity as Artifact” and again on May 8th, 2017 at re:publica]

Hi, I’m Christine. I’m a social media manager, and I have really complicated feelings about it, as you’ll find out in this talk.

Raise your hand if you consider yourself a nostalgic person. Now, raise your hand if you’ve ever shared an On This Day Facebook post or a Facebook friendship anniversary.

Nostalgia is an emotion[1] so common it can feel banal. However, engaging with nostalgia isn’t an empty act: nostalgia exists to nurture essential psychological processes[2]. And, with social media platforms like Facebook adding features that serve us our “memories,”[3] which are text, photo, and video content we’ve shared online, and actions we’ve taken, like friending someone, we may ask ourselves: what does it mean to experience nostalgia in the digital age?

First, let’s start with the essentials: the word “nostalgia” and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. It’s based off of the Greek word “nóstos” meaning “homecoming” and “álgos” meaning “pain ache.”[4] So, in its origins, nostalgia was bound to geographical places. Specifically, places with which one felt a strong emotional attachment such as one’s hometown or childhood residence.

Over centuries, the term broadened to include a wider set of remembering: from homesickness, to reminiscing on events and people from one’s past, and even longing for a specific era. And so, nostalgia has moved away from being a term used to describe an unequivocally negative emotion, to one that is more nuanced: nostalgia as we know it today can involve ancillary positive feelings such as fondness.[5]

Historically, we’ve done much to stir and sustain our nostalgia. We purchase sports memorabilia, we go to 50’s themed diners, we keep scrapbooks of keepsakes: locks of hair, ticket stubs, birthday cards, etc. What hidden depths of our humanity drive these curious activities?

Well, to really understand our nostalgic impulses, we need to first look at the evolved cognitive ability that nostalgia utilises, which is temporal thought. The capacity to think about the self in time is important to survival, because it allows us to reflect on our experiences, learn from them, and plan for the future.[6] It enables us, for example, to avoid a known danger, thus lengthening our life span, and potential for breeding and passing on our genes.

So, we know temporal thought is evolutionarily advantageous — but a negative consequence is that it facilitates an awareness of one’s own mortality.[7]

It turns out, the ways we cope with this awareness have been studied at length. Specifically, terror management theory (TMT) asserts we’re able to live with relative mental calm by investing in psychological structures — e.g. identity, meaning, and connection — that reduce this death anxiety by giving us a sense of self-transcendence.[8] We might interpret this as a kind of immortality.

Much of the research that supports TMT results from the mortality salience (MS) hypothesis.

This hypothesis states that, if certain psychological structures reduce our death anxiety, then experimentally heightening the awareness of death in a subject will result in increased levels of investment in, or defence of, these structures.[9] How did researches experimentally heighten the awareness of death? By having the participants write about their own mortality, or exposing them to death-related imagery, for example.[10]

In “Nostalgia: Conceptual Issues and Existential Functions,” authors Sedikides, Wildschut, and Baden say that nostalgia informs and reinforces our psychological structures of identity, meaning, and connection. If this is so, then in accordance with TMT, nostalgia is by extension a mechanism with which one may reduce their death anxiety.

The idea that nostalgia helps reduce death anxiety needed to be tested. And it was. Researchers asked subjects how frequently they experienced nostalgia, and how important it was to them. Then, they induced existential threats via MS, and measured the extent to which participants had a sense of meaning in life.

Control participants demonstrated a decreased sense of meaning, but participants who were more nostalgic didn’t demonstrate the same effects.[11] Two additional studies were carried out.

Consistent with foundational research showing that engagement with psychological structures reduces heightened anxiety following death reminders, one study showed that the effect of MS on elevated death-thought accessibility was lower among nostalgia-prone participants.[12]

The other study showed this also to be true among participants subjected to an experimental induction of nostalgia.[13]

Three additional studies were done. In the first, it was determined that, unlike those high in nostalgic proneness, those at a low-level responded less positively to an identity threat during MS than participants in the control condition.[14]

In the second study, at low, but not high, levels of nostalgia proneness, participants in the MS condition evidenced greater levels of death anxiety than participants in the control condition.[15]

In the third study, unlike those low in nostalgia proneness, those at a high-level indicated greater feelings of nostalgia during MS than participants in the control condition.[16]

So, what can we say about these studies related to nostalgia? Well, they’ve demonstrated that nostalgia is able to help keep death anxiety low and perceptions of meaning high. Furthermore, people soothe themselves with nostalgia after exposure to death-related content.

This is important. This is important because, if nostalgia is a useful impulse that keeps us calm in the face of the most imposing truth of our existence — our eventual nonexistence — while also colouring our life with meaning, then these positive outcomes are indeed things we can easily nurture in ourselves, or have nurtured within us. If you’re feeling less generous, you can also imagine how they can be exploited.

“Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to. It’s almost a disadvantage if you’re not on it now.”— Mark Zuckerberg

It’s clear that Zuckerberg — and anyone with a stake in Facebook, for that matter — wants us to spend a lot of time there. I don’t mean to be crude, but the more we’re on Facebook, the more ads we see, thereby increasing Facebook’s ad revenue. It’s business.

And, we know this extends beyond Facebook. The average person actually has five social media accounts and spends around an hour and forty minutes browsing these networks every day, accounting for 28% of the total time spent on the internet.[17]

On March 24th, 2015, Facebook officially launched On This Day. In a brief blog post, Facebook Product Manager Jonathan Gheller announced the feature.

“People often look back at old photos and other memories they’ve shared on Facebook, and many have told us that they enjoy products and features that make this easier… On This Day shows content from this date in the past. For example, you might see past status updates, photos, posts from friends and other things you’ve shared or been tagged in — from one year ago, two years ago, and so on. Only you will see this content unless you decide to share it with your friends.” — Jonathan Gheller

There are a few interesting things going on here. First, Gheller implies the feature was the result of user feedback: users looking back at their old Facebook content and asking for an easier way to access it. Second, Facebook chose to first show us the memories privately. Then, we have the option to share them on our timelines. Who are these people who requested this feature? Could they be people whom, as our studies put it, are “high in nostalgia proneness?” And if so, are they hoping to reinforce psychological structures of identity, meaning, and connection via Facebook? And by extension, reduce death anxiety?

“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.” — TechCrunch

Another thing to consider is that Facebook is offering us a curated past, algorithmically produced to favour positive moments and sanitise the negative.

But let’s track back to what Zuckerberg said earlier: that we use Facebook to keep up with our friends and family, and to build an image and identity for ourselves.

Now, if you recall, this sounds a lot like the psychological structures used in terror management theory. Interestingly, Zuckerberg calls this collection of Facebook engagement our “brand,” but isn’t that just another word for our digital self? Or even just — our self?

This is really the heart of the topic here: we know how nostalgia works in the real world. But, nostalgia’s relative success as a mechanism to bolster psychological structures, in the context of terror management theory as it interfaces with digital spaces like Facebook, I posit, depends on whether you see your online self as a separate — and perhaps compromised — entity, or if you view your online self as your self, period.

Regardless of whether you see your online presence as the product of a separate self or as your self, the fact of the matter is: the so called “memories” you make on Facebook aren’t really yours. They don’t live in your mind, really, the way your memories do. They also aren’t material objects, like keepsakes, that you possess and can retrieve at will to trigger nostalgia. Your actions, comments, photos, and videos are bytes on a hard drive in a Facebook data centre, and they help inform companies buying into their ad network how to show you their ads. For this reason, they are a commodity. ‘You’ are, perhaps, more of a commodity than a brand (as opposed to what Zuckerberg would have you think).

Another thing — it’s possible for a hacker or a Facebook employee to run a command and destroy all of this. So, we’re engaging with a version of nostalgia that’s deeply vulnerable. With this, nostalgia’s existential purpose — to reduce death anxiety — becomes ironic. Our lack of control over social media (and by extension, our psychological structures of identity, meaning, and connection insofar as they interface with the platform — let’s call them “psycho-digital structures”) is in itself an ‘existential threat.’ So, when we use social media to stir nostalgia, we’re engaging in a fundamentally delusional process.

Facebook’s On This Day feature utilises our senses of sight and hearing as they interface with text, photo, and video content. So, we might imagine how new technologies can be used in the service of nostalgia. And, perhaps, more potently than ever.

“Smell and touch are strong evokers of nostalgia due to the processing of these stimuli first passing through the amygdala, the emotional seat of the brain.” —Wikipedia

In the advent of increasingly immersive digital experiences, virtual reality, for example, we can ponder the possibilities for nostalgia: personalised digital renderings that enable us to move through our fondest memories, nat. sound accompaniment, and props to stimulate our sense of smell and touch. We can thus wonder about the effects of nostalgic engagement that is increasingly loyal to the conditions of the original memory — a limit graph that brings us ever closer to truly reliving an experience. We might finally ask if there’s a relationship between ‘authenticity’ of engagement with nostalgia and reduction of death anxiety.

By the way, Facebook is heavily invested in virtual reality. In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for 2.3 billion dollars. The company has developed a suite of virtual reality hardware and software.

“I’ve been thinking about when my daughter takes her first steps, how I want to capture it. When I took my first steps, my parents wrote it in a book with a pen. When my cousins’ child took her first steps, she took a picture with her camera. And when my older sister’s son took his first steps, she took a video on her smartphone. But when my daughter does, I hope we have a 360 camera that can capture the whole scene, so if my family isn’t there to experience it, I can send it to them afterwards — or it would be real-time enough where I could stream it to them live. They could put on a headset or get a message and feel like they’re really there and experiencing it.” — Mark Zuckerberg

Will virtual reality become the new baby album? Perhaps. In any case, we might ask ourselves about the possible implications of this kind of technology, and indeed, a culture that increasingly normalises recording and viewing memories.

The hit science fiction series “Black Mirror” presents us with one such speculation. In the episode “The Entire History of You,” people have implants that record everything they do, see, or hear. They can also play back their memories in front of their eyes, in a sense, layering over their present with their past. Would technology like this render the act of nostalgia transcendent? What happens when nostalgia is given this level of actualisation?

The Black Mirror episode presents a dystopian view: people queue up their best experiences to replace current, inferior versions. This is exemplified in a scene in which the protagonist and his partner are having sex. Both are emotionally detached from the present physical act, staring into the middle distance as they replay their respective best sexual experience. It’s an uncomfortable if horrific picture of a kind of unliving. So, can we really have too much nostalgia? Can its purpose to strengthen psychological structures and reduce death anxiety be subverted by frequency and/or ‘authenticity’?

One final thought.

By now, we’re well acquainted with dark speculations about social media, and this talk isn’t meant to be one. The truth is, the complexity and fluidity of digital ecologies make them incredibly difficult to divine. Many of us accept that uncertainty and opt in. Maybe — the benefits of opting in exceed the negatives after all and those horrific speculative fictions are moot. Maybe, Facebook’s On This Day feature and others like it enable us to imbue our lives with a little more meaning. And that can be enough.

Thank you.

  1. ^ “Emotion theorists are unanimous in labeling nostalgia an emotion, and we concur.” Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C. & Baden, D. (2004). “Nostalgia: Conceptual Issues and Existential Functions”. Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, (pp. 203).
  2. ^ “We propose that nostalgia serves existential functions. Nostalgia is an existential exercise in search for identity and meaning, a weapon in internal confrontations with existential dilemmas, and a mechanism for reconnecting with important others.” Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C. & Baden, D. (2004). “Nostalgia: Conceptual Issues and Existential Functions”. Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, (pp. 202–203).
  3. ^ “People often look back at old photos and other memories they’ve shared on Facebook, and many have told us that they enjoy products and features that make this easier.” Gheller, J. (2015). “Introducing On This Day: A New Way to Look Back at Photos and Memories on Facebook”. Facebook.
  4. ^ “… in the 17th century, the medical Establishment became alarmed after a group of Swiss soldiers were rendered incapacitated by their longing for home.” Dahl, Melissa (February 25, 2016). “The Little-Known Medical History of Homesickness”. New York magazine. Archived from the original on March 1, 2016.
  5. ^ “The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations” (1998, p. 1266). The nostalgic experience, then, involves positivity and even happiness.” Wildschut, T., Sedikides, C. & Baden, D. (2004). “Nostalgia: Conceptual Issues and Existential Functions”. Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology, (pp. 202).
  6. ^ “Humans’ highly evolved cognitive capacities for temporal thought are not only important for self-regulation, but for their survival. The capacity to think about the self in time allows people to reflect on past events, learn from them, and plan for the future (Becker, 1971; Sedikides & Skowronski, 1997; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991).” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 309).
  7. ^ “… these same mental abilities facilitate an awareness of inescapable mortality and thus create the potential for debilitating anxiety about death (Becker, 1973; Kierkegaard, 1849/1989).” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 309).
  8. ^ “Building on this premise, terror management theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Solomon, & Arndt, 2008) asserts that people are able to live with relative psychological equanimity in the face of this awareness through investing and maintaining faith in psychological structures (e.g., self-esteem, relationships, cultural worldviews) that buffer death anxiety by imbuing life with meaning, order, significance, and self-transcendence.” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 309).
  9. ^ “This hypothesis states that, if psychological structures buffer the consequences of mortality awareness, then experimentally heightening the awareness of death (mortality salience; MS) will result in elevated levels of investment in or defense of these buffering structures.” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 309–310).
  10. ^ “… participants receiving MS inductions (e.g., writing about their own mortality, being primed with death-related imagery or words, standing in front of a funeral home, engaging in death-priming cancer screenings)…” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 310).
  11. ^ “Whereas thinking about death resulted in a lower sense of meaning, this effect was not found among participants who were highly nostalgic.” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 310).
  12. ^ “ Consistent with research showing that engagement of terror management structures reduces heightened accessibility of death-related thought following death reminders (Arndt, Cook, & Routledge, 2004), Routledge et al. (2008) showed that the effect of MS on elevated death-thought accessibility was lower among nostalgia-prone participants…” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 310).
  13. ^ “… and among participants subjected to an experimental induction of nostalgia.” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 310).
  14. ^ “In sum, when nostalgia proneness was low, MS participants responded less favorably to an essay criticizing their university than did control participants.” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 311).
  15. ^ “Participants reminded of mortality (compared to pain) showed higher levels of death anxiety but only among people low in nostalgia proneness.” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 312).
  16. ^ “… at high levels of nostalgia proneness (+1 SD), participants in the MS condition had higher levels of state nostalgia than those in the control condition…” Juhl, J., Routledge C., Arndt, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T. (2010). “Fighting the future with the past: Nostalgia buffers existential threat”. Journal of Research in Personality, (pp. 313).
  17. ^ “The average person has five social media accounts and spends around 1 hour and 40 minutes browsing these networks every day, accounting for 28pc of the total time spent on the internet.” Davidson, L. (2015). “Is your daily social media usage higher than average?”. The Telegraph.
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