Facebook sent a memory the other day. A holiday snap popped up on my news feed with the words: “We care about you and the memories you share here.” Thanks, Facebook, but it wasn’t a good day as I remember it. A bit of bickering, a missed train. I looked at the photo again. What the hell, it was only a year ago.
Facebook wants me to get misty-eyed about a holiday that’s still weighing on my credit card. I haven’t downloaded the photos to my laptop yet. And it’s already a memory?
Facebook doesn’t know me well. But it does know that most of the billions of young people love nothing better than being reminded of the old days — like catching a train in October 2014 or that silly TV show in 2007 or the days when they thought a flip phone was the coolest thing since SpongeBob SquarePants.
It’s called early-onset nostalgia, a perfect expression of the way young people have annexed the only thing that made old age bearable — the memory that things were better when they were young. You don’t have to visit an aged facility to hear tales of the good old days; you just have to find a bar where the cocktails come in jars and the patrons swipe through their phones to find cute stuff that happened yesterday.
They regale each other with memories of My Little Pony, Degrassi High, Austin Powers, Cabbage Patch dolls, Donkey Kong, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Buzz Lightfoot, Tamagotchi, Magic Eye, Polly Pocket, Monkey Magic, scrunchies and a site called MySpace.
And to help them mine their memories they have Buzzfeed — 48 reasons 1990s kids had the best childhood — and Tumblrs such as nostalgasm.tumblr.com and Google to settle arguments about whether naughty John was the best Playschool host ever.
The digital stream that flows through their lives makes instant memories possible. They are never out of touch with how things were or who they were. But why are they so interested in their (relative) youth?
One answer is the reminiscence bump. It refers to the finding that autobiographical memories aren’t distributed evenly through life but peak between the ages of 10 and 30. That’s when the sense of self is most firmly rooted in memory, so it’s the period people refer back to with the most emotion. My Little Pony, for many 30year-olds, was an important part of not only who they were but also who they are now.
It also may explain why author Judy Blume, who recently toured with her first adult book in 17 years, creates such intense reactions from readers who grew up with her young adult books. “When they cry when they meet me,” she said in an interview, “it’s because I’m their childhood. I remind them of their childhood.”
It’s not just childhood authors and extruded toys that make youth mist up; music also is strongly tied to the adolescent years. Neuroscientists have found the songs that were the soundtrack of teenage years carve out a special place in your mind. Decades after you pranced to Janet Jackson’s Together Again at the school dance or mooned around pyjama parties with Justin Bieber on the iPod, those songs will be the ones you’ll belt out at karaoke. If it concerns 20-year-old women that they never escape Bie- ber, it’s not apparent in the ways they keep swiping to the past. The bonds that were created when Bieber and Bratz dolls dominated Saturday afternoons will be hard to break because they’re always being refreshed (see Buzzfeed, 27 Forgotten Early 2000s Fashion Trends).
The digital era has created an appetite for the past in a way family photo albums never did. Nothing gets dusted off any more, it’s all there all the time, popping up on a screen near you.
But what happens to memories if they are always being refreshed? Do they even feel like memories or are they pop-ups in a digital brain that have a brand attached?
Memories may not be so private, precious or even fuzzy but, frankly, I’d like to be the one to choose them; to drag them from the sentimental swamp of my mind or encounter them in an odd smell or a half-heard tune. I don’t want help from an algorithm to get nostalgic.