My friend Grace and I are lying on the floor, laughing, with barely an inch between us. It’s the end of the first raucous night of her bachelorette weekend, one month until her wedding, scheduled for April. And, oh yeah, it’s 2018 — before things like bachelorette parties and weddings were canceled for the sake of public health and the greater good.
Instagram’s “On This Day” feature surfaces some of the stories and posts you published one, two, five years ago on the same date. Rolled out for stories in January 2019, it’s a typically frothy product that taps into the pull of nostalgia to remind you of the good times, and, hey, maybe help you generate even more content for the social network while you’re at it. It’s Instagram’s take on the concept popularized a decade ago by Timehop, which has also had integrations with Facebook, and which resulted in similar products in Apple Photos, Snapchat, and more.
Instagram puts a notification in your Activity Feed when you’ve got an “On This Day” — that is, when you posted something on the same day in a previous year. You don’t opt in to these pings, they just start appearing.
Before coronavirus, these notifications were either something to reflect upon yourself, or to revel in with your followers through the re-share feature, or to totally ignore. Now, they’ve taken on a different function: to remind us of just how different the world is right now. And how we never saw this coming.
I started receiving more “On This Day” notifications over the past month. That could be because I just have a habit of posting more in March, who knows. But Instagram also confirmed to me that there was recently a bug that had interfered with sending out the notifications; they said my receipt of the notifications means the bug has been fixed.
I tried to turn off the notifications, in part because I don’t like receiving notifications that I didn’t specifically sign up for, and that I feel are a top-down ploy to get me to open and engage with the app. (This is an ungenerous reading of the On This Day product, of course. It may bring some people joy.)
Short of turning off push notifications from Instagram altogether, there’s no way to opt out of the On This Day notifications. Instagram confirmed this over email, saying, “much like other notifications in your activity feed, you cannot turn these off.” You can control getting a notification if someone follows you, or posts for the first time in a long time, or likes or comments on your content. But a memory isn’t something Instagram lets you turn off.
As I open the photo from the bachelorette, I smile at the silliness. We’re mid-roll on the floor. There’s a towel over the top of my face and I’m wearing a lamé romper, knees splayed open very immodestly. Grace has her knees tucked into her chest, with her head thrown back and mouth wide in a laugh. I think about how serenely happy she will be a few weeks from when the photo was taken, wearing white with her hair in a braided crown.
I can’t stop myself from thinking, “They were lucky,” and being just a little bit jealous of Grace and her husband’s good fortune in planning their wedding for a year that wasn’t this one. Two of the five weddings I was supposed to attend this year have been postponed. One of them is my own, scheduled for a time during which no one knows whether we’ll be out of the coronavirus woods. I can’t imagine coming together with our large families and far-flung friends, dancing, celebrating at all. And then, of course, I feel selfish for thinking of me, and a wedding, when people are dying and doctors slump home after equipment-bereft, 48-hour shifts, exhausted.
Joy, bitterness, sadness, guilt … I got all that from an Instagram notification.
What will the “On This Day” notifications a year from now look like? Will the posts contain gratitude that we made it through (if we make it through), disbelief at everything that’s happened? If we post an “On This Day” now, something like an old photo scrawled with a reflection like “lol remember parties” or “I miss my friends! #StayHome,” will we re-share that re-share, a recursive memento of the time before coronavirus?
Instagram couldn’t have seen coronavirus-necessitated social distancing coming any more than we did. But the feature does create a weird sort of time capsule, more curious now than ever. For the present moment, it’s one that looks back on the (retrospectively fragile) lack of precariousness that infused so much of normal life before coronavirus. In the future, it may be a way to trigger the feelings of a period in which our phones, and our screens, really were our best connection to the world beyond ourselves.
Social media-generated nostalgia can helpfully remind us of what’s out in the world — the full life that’s just awaiting our return — at the same time that it triggers a pang of loss. But maybe it’s also a reminder that next year will come; this too shall pass. On This Day, 2021, 2022, 2025, what will I remember?