Timehopping into Nostalgia

It’s now quite routine to make fun of photo-sharing applications. It’s almost second nature. A few years ago, everyone knew that mobile pictures would create enormous, diverse opportunities. It was no secret that mobile growth would be exponential, that both the hardware and software on mobile phones would improve with each iteration, and that the quality and quantity of pictures would increase. These forces lined up in such a way that founders and investors threw a great deal of time, effort, and money into the space, the resultant successes being Pinterest and Instagram (which was famously acquired by Facebook, though I’m hearing rumblings the deal has not officially closed).

Despite these competitive dynamics, it still remains fashionable to mock photosharing startups to some degree. I’ve been vocal about my personal interest and beliefs here — that photosharing apps are just at the beginning, and as the camera hardware enables new types of software features and as mobile operating systems expand what they’ll allow developers to access, I’m excited to see what new types of apps will emerge. I’ve heard of a few through the grapevine already, apps like Cinemagram (animating gifs within an image) or I’d Cap That (add funny captions to your pictures). The opportunities are endless.

For my own taste, I’m drawn to one startup in particular: Timehop. The majority of pictures we’re taking and sharing now capture our immediate lives. The photo library on my iPhone, for instance, only goes back to the summer of 2008, when I bought my first iPhone (3G). Presumably, when I snapped each picture, whether via Instagram or the native camera application, the phone captured other metadata around that picture that provides important context about “when” to present that image back to me.

The “when” is important. Up to date, Timehop has been focused on the web and reminding its users about events that happened a year ago. “Semil, a year ago you checked into Delfina with Sara.” It’s easy for us to date things back to a year. And, it’s natural for us to want to share that, because as humans we don’t have an innate sense of time. That dinner may feel like yesterday, or it may feel like years ago. The timestamp helps us reorganize our past. It provides a powerful contextual framework, one that we understand.

Here’s where I start to get excited about Timehop. As the future unfolds, we’ll take more and more mobile pictures. The operating systems will allow developers to pull more metadata from pictures tucked away in our libraries of pictures on our phones. Many of these are never Instagrammed or posted to Facebook. They’re personal. They are rich with information. And, while Twitter is great for sharing things right now, and while you can scroll down your Facebook Timeline and travel back in time, a service like Timehop could present older pictures to users in a way that strikes upon a deep emotional chord.

It is this element of nostalgia that interests me. It is a product I’d want. I can imagine Timehop simply running in the background on my iPhone, sending me a gentle notification, perhaps even as lightly as once a month, with prompts such as “Remember when you were in Carmel?” or “You were in this area four years ago with your brother.” And so on. A service like Timehop could earn our trust to go back into our native phone picture libraries and resurface our content to us in highly personalized and contextualized ways, so much so that it could legitimately capture a user’s attention for that alert. Right now, of course, Timehop is about taking social networks and creating context against the variable of time, and it delivers its product via email/web. But, as their new web page layouts hint at, there could be serious attention value in not just sharing the now, but traveling back in time, to remind us of happy moments or things we care about — and most importantly, it has the potential to tap into a medium people of all cultures understand intuitively. (Here’s Timehop for iOS, click here.)

Haywire is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2014 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus