Damn you, Facebook Memories

by Anna Farkas

Arianna Huffington would not approve, but like many people, my day usually starts with rolling over, snoozing my iPhone, and promptly beginning my daily drip. My thumb taps “f” into the browser, and up pops my Facebook newsfeed, complete with a daily image from the “This Date In The History Of Your Timeline.” Healthy or unhealthy, my morning routine has become even more insidious thanks to Facebook’s addition of the “On This Day” Memory feature.

Today, it’s a picture from 4 years ago, a solo shot of me, dusty and smiling, in Bryce Canyon, Utah. My belly flips and I feel momentarily ill. The image itself is great. I’m striking a mildly impressive yoga pose and look happy, tanned and strong. But the photo triggers a rush of memories from that moment. My mom was battling lung cancer, I was miserable with my job and my then-boyfriend had just dropped the Polyamory Bomb. Good morning to you too, Facebook, and thanks for the emotional anvil. That whole “a picture is worth a thousand words” thing is clichéd because it’s true. I just had an inadvertent emotional time-travel that took me down an ADHD rabbit hole, and I’m not even out of my pajamas yet.

Memories are complicated, and this contentious Facebook algorithm is an affront to the senses. First off, assuming all memories are happy and uncomplicated is pretty presumptuous. Sure, I’ve taken down most pictures of people I don’t want to see, but some moments were bittersweet; I like to look at them, but on my own time. Also, just because other people might look at our photos and just see the image, sans backstory, doesn’t mean they’re just pretty pictures to us. We have emotional and sensory responses to the images we’ve posted, and it’s not always easy to deal with. Most photos on social media are of seemingly happy faces, as mine was in that picture. But there’s often so much beneath the surface.

Seeing old photos is triggering, and with it, we recall the emotions we experienced at the time. According to Psychology Today’s Mary C. Lamia, Ph.D., “[T]he mind can summon emotional memories of exciting and unsullied love… memories can also activate more negatively experienced emotions. Unfortunately, such memories of things we’d rather forget seem to have greater intensity than the pleasant ones.” In other words, the bad ones linger a little longer and are more sharply felt.

I originally logged onto Mark Zuckerberg’s nascent social media site shortly after undergrad in 2005, and was a fairly sporadic user. But over the past decade, I’ve became enamored, enthralled, and addicted. When the Facebook Memories feature debuted in March 2016, things started to turn sour. Unprompted, an innocent picture of tacos and margaritas appears from a business trip I took to Mexico, causing my mind to veer off into regrets I have of that time in my life. My focus on the morning’s tasks was quickly replaced by an uncomfortable reverie on what could have been. Why did I leave that job? Was that a good decision? Where would I be if I had stayed there? Yesterday, it was a picture of me with high school students I taught in a dance program, beaming after a show. The image invoked benign but completely unnecessary distractions of how much younger I looked at 25. How had I aged? I should get back into the dance studio, etc. And so it goes.

So why not just take these images down? Well, I let the them live online because they’re still a part of me – my past, and my journey. And you never know – a new Tinder potential might be impressed with my hiking badassery. A potential yoga student may think I’m more legit, because #yogainnature. I am fine with the image being there, I just prefer to choose when and where all these memories get dusted off and brought out into the light. Especially if they have the potential to throw my daily goals off course. A 2002 study by the National Institute of Health found that though suppressing memory can be harmful, memory retrieval may interfere with your day and potentially your long term-goals (Levy & Anderson 2002). Well, exactly.

The benefits of staying present are countless, so, like the masses, I meditate sporadically, breathe deeply when I get stressed out, and occasionally binge watch Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday in an attempt to garner skills from the world’s uber spiritual. Living in this fast-paced world, the Facebook Memories feature feels outmoded. Like that old friend who won’t stop telling the story of that time you totaled your car, or some other stupid, ancient mistake. No, I’m living for today. I’m moving forward. Facebook, I’ve put up with this long enough. I’m done with your memories. I’m unsubscribing from your whimsy, unchecking that box. I’m moving forward into a new year and staying present, even if that means I’m still on Facebook, posting new memories from today.

Image credit: Photo courtesy of Leah Kelley.