Facebook's Timehop Nostalgia Is Just a Way To Exploit Emotions For Data

hat were you doing a year ago on this date? How about three years ago? Five? Not long ago, you’d have to run for your diary to answer that – and if you didn’t keep one, you’d be out of luck. Now, multiple sites and apps are willing to remind you, for the low price of all your personal information.

Companies like Facebook and Google have been trading privacy for convenience for years – you feed them your conversations and your shopping habits, and they serve you ads for things you might actually use. It’s an odd mix of creepy and user-friendly: you know those shoes only showed up in your sidebar because you were searching for similar shoes, which is weird, but on the other hand: good ad choice, Big Brother.

With more people installing ad-blockers, though, this approach has diminishing returns – or maybe companies are just always on the lookout for ways to make data-gathering look like service. So now, they’re commodifying nostalgia.

It’s not hard to do. We already chronicle our lives on social media. All a site or app needs to do is spit it back out occasionally: “Hey, remember this?” That’s the idea behind the app Timehop, which swallows whatever archives you give it access to (Twitter, Facebook, your photo library) and sends you daily reminders about what happened x years ago. (They’re in handy shareable form, so next year your Timehop can remind you about what you shared from your Timehop this year.) Perhaps threatened by Timehop as a superior nostalgia engine, in March Facebook started showing “on this day” reminders in newsfeeds. And now, popular file-hosting service Dropbox has launched Flashback, which combs through stored photos weekly and highlights the ones it thinks might make good memories. 

You already trust Facebook and Dropbox enough to let them archive all your stuff – or anyway, if you don’t trust them, you’re at least willing to ignore that for the convenience they provide. They’re just taking advantage of that trust to bring you a regular nostalgia fix. A close college friend once told me that in high school, her best friend at the time gave her her own diary for Christmas – as in, stole it from her room, wrapped it in festive paper, and handed it back to her. That’s more or less what’s happening here.

It ought to be spooky. After all, companies are just reminding you that they can steal your diary any time they want – that, in fact, you’re handing them your diary to read, on the daily. But like targeted ads, the spookiness is mitigated by utility: we have a hard time passing up something that appeals to both our sentimentality and our egotism. With Timehop or Flashback, everything that happens to you is momentous enough to have its own anniversary.

I’m the worst person to advocate caution; I use Facebook and Dropbox too, though I ignore their auto-reminiscence services. I even fed Timehop my Twitterarchive. If you’re going to keep a running record online, I can see the appeal of flipping back, or letting someone flip back for you. But it’s worth staying conscious of the ways that companies manipulate your emotions to gain your forbearance. Whether they’re offering convenience or nostalgia, one thing is certain: they’re not really doing it for you.

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