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Social media nostalgic trends present the perfect opportunity for people to escape from the difficulties of their current present, and look at their past in a different light. They look for those old versions of themselves again. Image Credit: Shutterstock

From #ThrowbackThursdays to old song trends, social media fuels nostalgia trips. But are these authentic memories or curated fabrications? Experts weigh in on the emotional power and potential pitfalls of digital nostalgia.

As Agnes Montgomery, an American Dubai-based psychologist explains, “We’re always looking for bits of our past selves in old photographs, albums, songs, scrapbooks, letters.” Social media has added a new dimension to our nostalgic moments.

We live in the age of reels where old childhood songs trigger memories, throwback Thursday’s and flashback Fridays photos,” she explains. The most recent trend, was when people shared photos of when they were 21. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are always flooded with posts and photos of people from their youth.

This digital nostalgia trip fosters emotional connections both with ourselves and others. These constant posts and trends leads to engagement, conversations and helps in rekindling old connections and dormant memories, she adds. “Nostalgia always evokes a sense of yearning and a range of emotions. So, even if it is triggered by curated digital content, these emotions are still authentic,” explains Montgomery. 

Looking back at simpler times through a digital lens

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Social media platforms also present several tools at the users disposal, which allow them to give a personal touch to their memories. This helps bring their past alive, too. Image Credit: Shutterstock

You are transported to the past, with a little help from technology.

Nicole Dresden, a French-English expat shuttling between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, says that she “unabashedly” joins every nostalgic trend that social media has to offer. “I love seeing people’s stories from their younger days, and it encourages me to share mine. After a hectic work day where I normally don’t have a chance to breathe, these trends take me back to simpler times, like my university days,” she says.

“And when I share it online, I reconnect with people from my past. Together, we remember those days; we relive those memories of university, classes and just sleeping in lawns. Essentially, when we were more carefree in life. For all its woes, these nostalgic trends on social media really foster a sense of community,” says Dresden.

Moreover, the explosion of features designed to trigger nostalgia is undeniable, says Esra Watts, a Dubai-based psychologist.  "Platforms offer tools like photos, videos, and music, allowing users to express their longing for the past creatively." These personalised touches, according to Watts, enhances the emotion and bring the past alive. It's not just about revisiting memories; it's about reliving them with a personal touch.

There's a comfort in returning to simpler times, which are now easily accessible in the digital space, says Watts. "These trends become an escape, a way to de-stress, and help people finding comfort in past. Reliving good memories is cathartic, even meditative,” she adds. And with everyone connected, you see others seeking the same escape.

Creating a community

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Nostalgia on social media fosters a sense of community, as it sparks conversation and engagement among users. Image Credit: Shutterstock

She found home with the help of old rock songs that had defined her childhood.

Mallika Sharma, an Abu Dhabi-based Indian expat, was rather lonely when she moved to the Emirate four years ago after marriage. She didn’t know anyone; she was scouring through Facebook groups to find some connection with people. One day, one of the groups that she had joined, kick-started a trend of reliving songs from their childhood.

“It was such a rush of nostalgia,” she recalls. “I was so excited, because they shared theme songs from old cartoons, that I didn’t know anyone else knew. And in that deluge of comments, I found so many friends. One thing led to another, and many of us discovered a love for old rock songs, enough to create a separate group,” she says.

According to Sharma, the group still relives old songs from their favourite childhood bands, and flooding the group with different photos of various bands. “I found a home, with this community. It soothed my homesickness and anxiety, and moreover encouraged me to listen to more old rock songs that had defined my childhood. I learned so much from people too. Sometimes, we even get together and jam,” she adds.

This warmth of musical nostalgia created by an online community was an inexplicable solace.

‘Content overload’

Social media is a digital diary. "It has now become a platform for people to reinstate their camaraderie among their friends and family because just the deed of sharing an old picture would trigger memories in people," explains Aida Suhaimi, a clinical psychologist at Medcare-Camali clinic, Dubai. 

According Shaheera Anwar, a Dubai-based Pakistani journalist,  every day you’re treated to some old recollection or the other. Facebook memories will make you relive old memories by sharing some old and awkward photos. "You’ll also  invariably find that one post or reel that will make you remember a time in your life,” she says.

The caveat to remember that an old photo when shared on social media, it should be taken with a pinch of salt and people should be able to move on with their life, instead of dwelling on the memories....

- Aida Suhaimi, clinical psychologist, Medcare-Camali

However, for some, this constant barrage of nostalgia on social media is content overload, as it is for Maria Drew, a British public relations professional based in Dubai. “You begin to wonder who is really authentic, after seeing the flood of photos. I’ve seen people rewriting their own pasts in captions, as if to paint their lives in a different light. That’s when these trends start getting scary,” she adds.

Why does this happen? “Seeing others share carefree throwbacks can trigger a desire to do the same. But if your own past wasn't filled with such moments, the temptation arises to paint it differently. This is where inauthenticity creeps in," warns Watts. "The downside of social media involves this unhealthy mix of trends and fabrication."

In short, people tend to convince themselves and others that their past was rosier than it really was. “They stop accepting it for what it was. Neither do they accept their present,” she adds. As Watts warns, Nostalgia is meant to be a fun visit, not a permanent residence. As Suhaimi puts it, when an old photo when shared on social media, it should be taken with a pinch of salt and people should be able to move on with their life instead of dwelling on the memories. 

Nothing like old school

Reels, throwbacks and trends are all very well, but some prefer the tangible feel of physical keepsakes. The comfort of wrinkled handwritten letters, photo albums and concert tickets cannot be replaced by digital scrolling.

For many like Dubai-based Lene Peters, an artist and educator, nostalgia is preserved in old memorabilia. “There are also senses that are involved in memory association,” she adds. “Smells, sounds, imagery can take us right back to the emotions we felt on that particular day in our past. Those good memories trigger more happiness when you have the mementoes and photographs of the happy moment,” she says.

There are senses that are involved in memory association. Smells, sounds, imagery can take us right back to the emotions we felt on that particular day in our past. Those good memories trigger more happiness when you have the mementoes and photographs of the happy moments...

- Lene Peters, Reiki practitioner, artist and educator

This sensory reward is missing with digital photography on social media, she adds. The emotional recall is deeper than a digital scroll. Moreover, she has concerns about the digital ephemerality. “I love the poignancy of looking through old photographs. It’s not just photos; the physical feeling of concert tickets evoke the same emotional recall. Real photographs if preserved properly, can last for generations. With digital photography, photos are more at risk from crashed hard drives, hacked accounts and forgotten passwords,” she says.