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Facebook's "On This Day" function shows what happens when you're not the curator of your own past

click to enlarge MATT MIGNANELLI ILLUSTRATION
  • Matt Mignanelli illustration

The first season finale of Lost writer Damon Lindelof's The Leftovers ends with what could best be described as "emotional terrorism."

Years after the unexplained disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population, a silent cult breaks into the houses of everyone in a small town one night, leaving high-quality mannequins — identical down to the smallest detail — of those who disappeared, in the exact spot they disappeared. The intention? "To make them remember." To keep the wound of grief fresh.

And there, I thought while watching, is the perfect analogy for Facebook's "On This Day" function.

Starting last March, Facebook began greeting us on select mornings with ancient social-media artifacts — photos, accepted friend requests and status updates — unearthed and displayed proudly at the top of our timelines.

Yet sometimes the algorithm's discoveries feel less like archeology and more like gravedigging.

2 YEARS AGO TODAY, you were in love and loved back. 4 YEARS AGO TODAY, you hadn't yet been fired from your dream job. 5 YEARS AGO TODAY, you proudly announced your pregnancy to the world, before your miscarriage. 1 YEAR AGO TODAY, Dad was alive and smiling. 3 YEARS AGO TODAY, your body looked like that.

Facebook makes you remember, whether you wanted to or not.

It's the tackiest move from Facebook since it announced the ending of a relationship status with a little cartoon broken heart. Yes, you can customize — blacklisting specific dates or specific people from the On This Day feed — but you can't turn off the function entirely.

Facebook missed the crucial insight of Pixar's Inside Out: A shift in time, a shift in context, and — voila, like a cruel magic trick — our happiest memories turn into our saddest. In an instant, the person you want to think about the most can become the person you want to think about the least. Algorithms, even data-rich ones, have trouble grasping that.

Modernity has handed us a radical new access into our pasts: You can type a phrase into a search bar and be reading a decade-old essay you wrote in high school seconds later. You can comb through Skype chat transcripts, performing a forensic dissection of a dead relationship. Confirm a friend request, and be chatting with a middle-school crush you haven't seen in decades.

Yet there's a darker side of employing a social media site as the curator to your museum of memories.

Facebook long ago solidified its function of making you jealous of others — with their travel photos and their boyfriends and their babies and their #blessed hashtags. On This Day took it one step further: It makes you jealous of yourself. It took all the bragging, the celebrations, the pronouncements of happiness you made years ago, and turned them into taunts.

This is especially true with photos, which On This Day seems to favor above everything else. Pictures lie. Pictures pretend to be happy. We're told to smile for the camera, and for the camera we dutifully comply. The smiles may fade with the flash, and we may return to our arguments about dirty towels and mothers-in-law and organic produce and overlong showers. The photos, of course, just show the smile.

Some people take a scorched-earth approach — untag, unfriend, block, delete, nuke it from orbit — when a good memory turns bad. Yet airbrushing away your own history feels wrong somehow, almost Orwellian.

After all, On This Day has analog analogues: I've been searching for tax documents in my filing cabinet and found a manila folder full of old love letters, filled with sweetness that had long ago curdled.

Part of being a healthy adult means surviving ambushes from painful memories. The trick is searching for the space between burning your past and hanging it proudly on the wall.

We don't throw out the old photo albums full of painful memories — we let them gather dust in storage closets, buried under the Christmas decoration boxes and the fancy tablecloths — to let it all be shoved away out of sight, half-forgotten without being entirely destroyed. Maybe someday we stumble across it, and then decide it's time to open it up and reminisce. Or we spot it in our peripheral vision, decide we're not ready, and turn away.

Facebook's power is in tearing down walls — whether between the professional, the casual and the personal or between the past and the present.

But sometimes those walls have been built for a reason. We have our grieving rituals partly to compartmentalize. We dress in black at funerals in part so we can dress in bright colors elsewhere. We set aside a time for weeping and mourning, partly to allow us time for dancing and laughing.

Facebook doesn't need to protect us from our past. It just needs to give us a place to put it — someplace cool and dark and out of the way, where it can't prod at us or taunt us. Someday, we'll dig it up ourselves, and face it eye to eye.

But not on this day. ♦

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