There is a new thing creeping up on social media. People are suddenly going back to their time-lines and posting the first-ever profile picture they ever posted on Facebook, and they are tagging three other people to go and dig up their digital archives. It promises to be the biggest viral meme of this year, as people go and discover old fashions, hair-cuts and strange grainy settings from early low-res phones, and they also reminisce about those days when we were younger and healthier, and somehow, in those simpler times, happier. The pictures are trending now, as users, unable to remember a world without social media, are at least able to find a genesis for this world that we live in now, immersed and inextricable from the digital webs and networks we have constructed.
More and more, these pictures are emerging, making us aware of the fact that the young users who started the social networks are now old, thinner on the head, thicker around the waist, and no longer the hip, cool, crowd that the digital natives are supposed to be. Indeed, if anything, this is a sign that the days of older social media, for which Facebook has been the poster-child, are finally over, and the only way we can find some fun and intrigue in it, is to go back to the histories that it relentlessly remembers of pasts that we strive to forget.
The new Facebook meme of sharing your first profile picture is a riff on the extremely popular “Throw Back Thursday” (#tbt), that has been used more than 300 million times on Instagram already. TBT is a sepia tinted explosion of old pictures, or new pictures pretending to be old, using the godawful filters on Instagram that instantly turn a mediocre picture into something glorious, reminiscent of our past, drowning us in clouds of nostalgia of the times that have gone by. Given the ADHD pace of social media where, in the blink of a few days, entire trends rise and fall, relationships get forged and are forgotten, and events move from memory to storage, time has a rather stretched, stressed and distressed quality. Everything gets archived, and thus, nothing remains important or something that can be highlighted. Posts from last month, lost in the curated timelines of our social feeds, appear quaint. Things that we might have said in jest or in passionate argument, seem distant and alien. Responsibility for what we post or produce seems to reside with the past-us that is so different from the present-us, which is running so fast that it is already in the future. In these times, #tbt, invites people to dig out things from the past, unearth objects from history, remember events from days of long ago, like two years ago, and celebrate the flatness of the past into the glorious present.
The internet is no longer young. It might still be new, but that has more to do with the fact that our devices, platforms, applications, interfaces and machines are constantly evolving. However, the internet itself is old enough, not only for things to be forgotten, but, in the cyclical nature of fashion, for things to come back. And so here we are now, marking officially the death of social media as we knew it. The only people who are digging out those old profile pictures are the ones who were getting abuzz with excitement at discovering social networks in the early 2000s. The real digital natives might participate in this ironically. They participate in #tbt either as a gentle mockery of the digital dinosaurs who are reminiscing about how in their days things were different, or as a harsh reminder that the past to them is a strange country, only to be remixed and reappropriated for their hipster aesthetics.
The reduction of a past to aesthetics and design, the complete archiving of our memories to predictive algorithms of social media, to find the genesis of our quantified selves in pictures that we don’t recognise, is a recognition that time and our relationship with it has changed in the never-ending circuits of the digital web. Our digital selves seem to have a new genesis, which is not marked by our triumphs, achievements, memories, or desires, but by tools and devices of storage that limit the ways in which we can remember our pasts.
Every time a new old picture is shared, and a #tbt enters the zeitgeist of social media, we give more power to these machines that remember and platforms that help us forget, offering us new beginnings which remove all that we were before, and all that we will be after the world of big data. We no longer have control over what happens to our data, but there is a wayback machine that remembers all that we have done. It will persecute, prosecute, and punish us for things that we have forgotten, but hey, at least it will let us manage the filters, frames, gradient and light that makes that data beautiful in all its treachery and tyranny.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore
The story appeared in print with the headline When it all Began
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