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Friday, February 23, 2024

I Can’t Stop Escaping Into Google Photos’ Nostalgia Vortex

I downloaded Google Photos years ago, during the era that I’ve only half-jokingly started to call the Before Times. It was the eve of my college graduation. My family had just flown in on a plane. The next day, I would shake hands with my professors and then eat a slice of cheese with those same hands. In the procession lineup, a friend and I would hug, bringing our faces as close as the rigid squares of our graduation caps would allow, one dyad among thousands of embraces.

At the time, I just wanted to take lots of pictures. I downloaded Google’s free photo-storage app, set it to autosave from my phone’s camera roll, and hardly thought about it for the next three years.

The world has been radically upended since then. This spring, the coronavirus pandemic shut down college campuses and canceled gatherings across the country. For those of us so privileged that our only diagnosis is to stay home, long stretches of isolation and anxiety spirals still take a mental toll. The idea that there might be an escape hatch from the fear and grief many of us are feeling, however temporary, has never been more seductive. My own colleagues have found escapist respite in Animal Crossing and reality TV, ASMR and a Barbie Polaroid camera. On sleep-starved nights, I’ve tapped through each one of my apps, in search of solace within the safe perimeter of my phone screen.

This was how I opened my long-dormant Google Photos app—and unleashed the most potent diversion of them all. After an errant tap, my screen flooded with snapshots of trees, ice cream cones, and blurry San Francisco vistas. In the Before Times, I would close the app after I backed up my camera roll to the cloud. Now, I can’t stop scrolling.


I pore through Google Photos with the avidity of an archeologist at the richest dig of her life. Look, a dog! I used to pet those at the park. Here are ten thousand permutations of a book and a mug of coffee, painstakingly arranged on a cafe table. This is a poorly lit bar. My friends dragged me to it; I was irritable and sleepy that night, but now I’m elated to at least have this memento of a night spent out on the town with people I care about. More than any fantastical virtual world, I realized that there is actually nowhere I’d actually rather escape to than the blessedly mundane gallery of the past.

Nostalgia for the pre-Covid era is echoing across the internet. Nearly every Instagram post that’s not a mask-selfie is a throwback to the world outside our four walls. The meme of the children’s cartoon character DW wistfully gazing across a fence has reemerged over the past few weeks, capturing the despair of missing the mundane: the streets, the gym, and restaurant chains. Kaitlyn Tiffany at The Atlantic suggests calling this phenomenon “newstalgia.”

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Reflecting on cherished past memories can be a psychological salve, says Andrew Abeyta, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who studies the impact of nostalgia on people’s feelings of belonging and meaning in life, two psychological needs that he says are particularly threatened by the nature of the pandemic. Social distancing exacerbates loneliness, while financial insecurity can intensify feelings of hopelessness.

Abeyta says mulling over nostalgic photos, particularly those that highlight meaningful interpersonal relationships, can help. “This may give us a strong sense that there are people out there that love us and support us,” he says. “Special memories also provide examples of how our lives are important and significant, and it reminds us of a purpose in life as well.”

Two features make Google Photos well poised for nostalgia dives: First, storage space on this app is free and infinite, if you’re cool with some file compression. This means I could store the excess of thoughtless photos I take, enabling myself to take more photos with even less thought. Google Photos hadn’t just saved the manicured frames that merited a square on the ‘gram, but every single shot I’ve taken since installing it, giving me a chaotic abundance of unfiltered images—the closest digital approximation to Dumbledore’s all-remembering Pensieve. Reopening it after three years felt like striking gold.

Second, its image-recognition AI is also pretty smart, even if it’s had its problems with bias. Enter a term into the top search bar (say, flower or blue) and it pulls up photos containing those things with admirable accuracy. These days, I find myself searching for the words restaurant, followed by birthday party or nature, each keyword like an item on a wish list for things I hope to photograph again someday.

That said, the memory repository of Google Photos isn’t a magical cure-all. One colleague pointed out that old photos aren’t helpful to her—if she can’t be sure we’ll ever go back to a bar ever again, reminiscing about them just pours salt in the wound.

“Nostalgia isn’t a one-size-fits-all type of phenomenon,” says Abeyta. For people with negative experiences with past relationships, memories can be inhospitable. And while looking at photos of friends can sate loneliness, they can’t replace interactions. “They’re only snacks, if you will. Eventually, you’ll need a meal,” he says.

For all of this waxing poetic about the Before Times, it’s worth challenging if we even want something like them again. In the graduation photos, neatly arranged in dated rows, my classmates and I have no idea that a global crisis would eventually deal a devastating blow to our still-young careers. We were only vaguely aware that, in the midst of such a crisis, the security nets beneath us would be so fragile. Along with upending the blithe pleasures of pre-Covid life, the pandemic has brutally laid bare the institutional perils and defects that existed long before the outbreak.

Gig workers’ protections were precarious before the pandemic struck; they’ve since been rebranded as “essential workers” and deployed to deliver food to the quarantined masses, still lacking basic benefits. Frontline workers are protesting major retailers’ prolonged failure to provide safe working conditions, hazard pay, or extended sick leave. A surge of unemployment exposes the difficulty of finding stable work and the fragile rights of renters. The Before Times, even in the rosy light of retrospect, bore deep flaws.

That’s the problem with making a photo archive one’s escape hatch of choice. Our digital distractions can be a vital source of consolation, but I’m wary of any romantic delusions that the version of the world crystallized in Google Photos is one we should aim to replicate.

There are some things that I’m hopeful we’ll get back one day. Graduation ceremonies, certainly. Hugs. Visiting elderly loved ones. The feeling of skimming your fingers absentmindedly across clothes on a rack. But even when I’m most wistful for my world as I knew it, perhaps it’s better to consider the world memorialized in Google Photos as just that: a memorial to a cherished past, a starting point, but not a blueprint for the After Times.

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