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Digging Into My Digital Past Using Timehop and Facebook

Want to look back at your digital past each day? Timehop and Facebook's On This Day make this simple. Just keep in mind that some memories may be better off forgotten.

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In my favorite Cher song, the famed diva speculates about what she would do if she could turn back time. She would take back those words that had hurt you, and you’d stay, obviously.

Yet as appealing as Cher makes the past sound, our social networks focus mostly on the present time. We get real-time or recent news updates from friends and media outlets on Facebook and Twitter, and we like photos of our friends’ oven-fresh, homemade lasagna on Instagram.

But if you could turn back time in your digital life, would you?

For the past several weeks, I’ve been intently focused on the past, with help from two free services: Timehop and Facebook’s On This Day. They both work in a similar way, going back in time to dredge up digital photos, status updates, anniversaries, videos, text messages, location check-ins and other data from the same date last year. Or the year before that. Or five years ago. Or whatever year the event occurred.

One example of an old photo that On This Day re-surfaced from two years ago.
One example of an old photo that On This Day re-surfaced from two years ago.

The content you see in Timehop and On This Day is only visible to you, but if you like the memory enough, you can re-share it to other people in a few quick steps.

On This Day, which launched this past spring, only works on Facebook. It can be turned on via this link; click Notifications in the top right to turn these on. Reminders to look at your On This Day content appear in your Facebook notifications (i.e., “You have memories with Joe Schmo to look back on today”); these memories will also occasionally appear in your Facebook News Feed.

Facebook does a bit more curating than Timehop, which some people may prefer. If you’ve blocked or unfriended someone, content from that person won’t show up in On This Day. Likewise, if you’ve used Facebook to say you ended a relationship with someone, you won’t see tagged content with that person in your News Feed; the same is true for someone whose account has been memorialized after their death (here’s how to do that, if you’re curious).

Timehop, on the other hand, works as a standalone app on Android or iOS, and as a photo-retrieving tool that installs and works in the background on your computer. Its app has a cute dinosaur avatar named Abe who appears every so often with funny quips and news-related anniversaries.

The app, which has been around since 2011, surfaces memories from all sorts of sources, including your phone (photos and videos), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Dropbox photos and desktop photos (it works on Windows or Mac).

Timehop reminds you to look at its reminiscences on your phone via a daily push notification, and shows you all of your content, unfiltered.

Timehop’s Abe

I’ll admit it: I’ve turned into a total sap looking back in time, remembering my pre-marriage, pre-baby days and realizing how much more I used to go out. (Once upon a time, I was a lot of fun — I swear!)

I reminisced over past status updates about nights out at the bar with friends, photos of meals at memorable restaurants and even Web links I shared for work events, like Mark Cuban’s appearance at our D Conference on May 27, 2009.

But the catch with both Timehop and On This Day is that you can only look back at today’s date, however many years ago. On a few different occasions, I was too busy to look through my past memories on a certain day. After that day ended, I could no longer look back a day, because Timehop and On This Day had moved on to the next day.

Another potential problem with both of these services is that not everyone wants to reminisce about the past. While many social network status updates tend to err on the positive (even if people are just bragging rather than being honest), life happens. Relationships end, people die, loved ones get sick and employment statuses change. And let’s not forget about the moments you wish weren’t documented on Facebook, including nights of debauchery and really bad fashion choices.

Looking back could hurt.

Of course, you can always edit, delete or un-tag yourself from old Facebook posts. Or you could opt not to use these apps at all.

Facebook’s On This Day

After using both Timehop and On This Day, I found that I really appreciated Timehop’s ability to pull up photos and videos from my phone. My husband and I were moved to tears watching a video of our then-10-month-old son giggling and rolling around on the floor. My sister said she laughed when I sent her a photo of how exhausted she looked two years ago, holding her newborn son — now a toddler.

Though I use various services, including Apple’s Shared Albums, to digitally memorialize photos and videos, the majority of the photos and videos I capture are stuck on my phone and forgotten. Even though I had a bunch of duplicate photos (the result of trying to capture an always-moving baby in still photos), I was grateful for Timehop’s ability to automatically walk me down memory lane each day.

Yep, I went out a lot more often seven years ago.
Yep, I went out a lot more often seven years ago.

It’s worth noting that On This Day shows you more than just your own shared photos and status updates. It pulls up anniversaries of things like when you started a job (if you’ve told Facebook this information) and when you became friends with someone. It shows you content you were tagged in, which could help you have more to look back on if your friends are more active on Facebook. It also shows check-ins, events you attended, groups you joined and birthdays.

And, naturally, Facebook’s relatively new On This Day feature works best if you have a rich history with Facebook. If you aren’t a heavy Facebook user and never were, chances are that its updates will be pretty meaningless.

After using Timehop and On This Day a lot and realizing that they were acting as my lazy person’s diary, documenting life events in a way that let me look back — albeit only one day at a time — I started updating my social networks a little more often. The tech landscape puts a lot of emphasis on looking ahead toward the future, but Timehop and On This Day prove the value of looking back, too.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.