Future Tense

On This Day, Nothing Happened

History used to be collective. Facebook is making it selfish.

On the Day.

Facebook, capturing history.

Image courtesy of Facebook

I didn’t know it until recently, but apparently I made history in May 2014. (And it turns out it’s already repeating.) Upon opening the Facebook app last month, I was surprised to find the traditional newsfeed replaced by a full-screen notification about a photograph I posted “1 year ago today”—an extreme close-up of my cat staring me down in bed. At the top of the page, the heading, “On This Day,” signaled both the name of Facebook’s recently launched feature and a lofty expression we’ve all heard many times before: On This Day something important happened. On that day, May 12, Napoleon conquered Venice, the Axis forces surrendered in North Africa, the Soviet Union lifted the Berlin blockade, and my cat gave me the stink-eye because she wanted food now.

The “This Day in History” shtick is beloved of novelty shops and secondary school educators. Other iterations of On This Day—souvenir newspapers, birthday cards, and websites like on-this-day.com—highlight events that have been established as culturally significant or historically important. The New York Times website, for instance, features an On This Day blog where people can “Browse important events in history by clicking on each date to see a featured archival New York Times front page and article, as well as a list of other notable events that occurred on that day.”

Of course, Facebook is a social networking site, not a traditional historical archive. But ever since it rolled out its Timeline format in 2011, it has encouraged us to think about the most mundane details of our lives as part of a chronologic axis previously reserved for History, with a capital H. And thanks to the On This Day feature, we can now commemorate each and every post that comes to structure each individual life’s chronology: births and deaths, career highpoints and new relationships, but also that time you shared your thoughts about the royal baby, or that BuzzFeed list of dogs who just can’t handle it. By replacing events of broad cultural significance with mundane “events” of little to no relevance to anyone else, Facebook seems to be transforming our understanding of commemorative practice in two ways: It hastens the process through which events get treated as “historical,” and it lowers the bar regarding which past events get to count as “history.”

Facebook isn’t the first to glom on to the This Day in History idea. Since 2011, the app Timehop has offered users a daily snapshot of their personal “history” across several different social networking platforms, instilling in every Foursquare check-in and tweet the potential gravitas of history repeating. But before apps got involved, This Day offered people an opportunity to think about the major historical events of the past in relation to the events of today, maybe to consider how things might have changed a lot since the Civil War ended or JFK was assassinated. Even in the kitschiest format, On This Day souvenirs offered a way for people to think about personal milestones like birthdays in relation to a bigger history. We marked those moments that were significant in the collective imagination, events that were determined (after some time) to be of central importance to the way that collective is constituted.

Facebook’s On This Day platform, by contrast, privileges the anniversary itself, the marking of a moment in time with no substantive content necessary. That events are more or less undifferentiated—at the same time Facebook might spotlight the two-year anniversary of my friend’s death and the four-year anniversary of my snarky comment about bad parallel parkers—speaks to the way in which content ceases to be central to the process of remembrance. In other words, events are arbitrarily designated as worthy of marking based solely on the time of the anniversary: On this day absolutely nothing happened, and yet we still commemorate it.

This shift in focus from anniversary event to anniversary-in-itself seems to have two opposing ramifications for how we think about commemoration. On one hand, in an idealistic reading, it might make us more attuned to the importance of the present. After all, events tend to accrue meaning over time, and part of the appeal of Timehop and Facebook’s On this Day apps is that they just might allow us to preserve something we didn’t even know was worthy of preservation. Who is to say what momentary experiences will grip our memories for the long term or what everyday objects will one day become cherished mementos?

But on the other hand, by privileging an anniversary regardless of the content, Facebook urges people to go through the motions of retrospection, to have feelings of nostalgia generated more by the automatic action of marking time than by any specific event or experience. In this way, On This Day risks transforming commemoration into a meaningless gesture, in which all one really reflects upon is a potentially empty process of reflection itself. Look at me being pensive and nostalgic and caring about the past, the user gets to feel while contemplating how something happened “one year ago today.”

The new definition of “this day” speaks in part to a troubling breakdown in the very idea of shared experience. In particular, the move away from specific events to a generalized commemorative gesture reflects our contemporary decentered experience of history: Because of new technologies that offer access to so many news sources, there is no longer a central shared object of our attention. In place of a shared object, we have a shared process of remembering something, anything.

The feature will surely evolve, but for now Facebook’s emphasis on the one-year, two-year, and four-year anniversaries of old posts testifies to an odd compression of time between when something happens and when it gets considered historically relevant. While the earlier This Day in History platforms invited us to situate the events of our own lives against the time of our youth or a time long before we were alive, Facebook’s personalized version promotes a comparison that shrinks the time between epochs to almost nothing. By turning the mundane stuff of last year’s morning in bed into the object of anniversary-marking, Facebook invites us to think about all of our humdrum moments as the stuff of future nostalgia.

One thing seemed abundantly clear as I stared at the evidence of my most unmemorable memory: We are now always in the process of making memories that will last a lifetime (or at least the lifespan of a Facebook wall). But there is something undeniably disturbing about Facebook’s tagline for On This Day—“Never Miss a Memory”—and in particular, the subheading asking users: “Want to get notifications when you have memories to look back on?” The implication, as crazy as it sounds, is that you don’t have memories anymore unless you first register them with Facebook. Remembering is no longer something you do; it’s something Facebook does for you. The fact that the feature allows users to “edit and delete old posts” implies, moreover, that memory is a collection of trinkets one might change, exchange, and consume. The notion that memory is both an object and an apparatus of thoughtless consumption underlies a commemorative practice whose automated performance risks supplanting the work of memory, even as it seems to celebrate it. What remains to be seen, however, is whether a life-long memory composed without life-sustaining content has any staying power.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.