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Millennials Flock to Instagram to Share Pictures of Themselves at 21

Most of the photos are slightly faded. The hairlines fuller. Some feature braces. Old friends. Sorority squats and college sweethearts. Caps and gowns. Laments about skinny jeans and other long lost trends.

This week, Instagram stories the world over have been awash with nostalgic snapshots of youthful idealism — there have been at least 3.6 million shares, according a representative for Meta — as people post photos of themselves based on the prompt: “Everyone tap in. Let’s see you at 21.”

The first post came from Damian Ruff, a 43-year-old Whole Foods employee based out of Mesa, Ariz. On Jan. 23, Mr. Ruff shared an image from a family trip to Mexico, wearing a tiny sombrero and drinking a Dos Equis. His mother sent him the photo, Mr. Ruff said in an interview. It was the first time they shared a beer together after he turned 21.

“Not much has changed other than my gray hair. I see that person and go, ‘Ugh, you are such a child and have no idea,’” he said.

Mr. Ruff created the shareable story template with the picture — a feature that Instagram introduced in 2021 but expanded in December — and watched it take off.

“The amount of people that have been messaging me and adding me on Instagram out of nowhere, like people from around the world, has been crazy,” Mr. Ruff said.

Many of those taking part are millennials — the generation loosely defined as now ranging from their late twenties to early forties — who came of age when cellphone cameras made it easy to capture every moment of their lives.

They also uploaded a lot of those pictures to sites like Facebook, making it easy to find and retrieve them at a moment’s notice. For Boomers and members of Generation X, photos of their 21-year-old selves are less likely to be digitized, making those harder to share. A good portion of Gen Z hasn’t yet turned 21, and the ones who have don’t have to look back far to find photos of themselves.

Of course, the viral trend of asking people to “tap in” isn’t totally organic. Many apps engineer forms of looking back as a way to drive engagement. Spotify encourages users to share a personalized year-end list that ranks the songs they’ve listened to over the year. Even the Photos app on iPhones has a For You section, which rotates old photos on a daily basis. Instagram, which, like Facebook, is operated by Meta, has had no shortage of its story templates being widely shared, as with “National Couple Day! Post your other half.”

This week’s reminiscence du jour has struck a particular chord among the generation who were the Original Posters.

Makana Chock, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies social media, said that human beings are likely to remember positive memories from their past and pointed out that 21, in particular, has cultural significance in the United States because it’s the legal drinking age.

“We tend to remember it fondly as this period of sort of freedom. You could drink. You could party. You could be with your friends,” Ms. Chock said. “We tend to forget the angst and the terrible insecurities and, probably, heartbreak, and other things that were going on at that point in time. But you do remember sort of the more positive glowing things. Because we had collagen and knee cartilage.”

Sonali Dasgupta Rahlan, 31, posted a photo of a group of high school friends from a trip to New York, “as a fun walk down memory lane to see what we were doing ten years ago.” It was easy for Ms. Rahlan to find the photos as she was posting online a lot back then and still had access to her old accounts.

“We all look different now,” Ms. Rahlan, a data scientist, said. “We all are in such different places in our lives. But also, the photo I posted is of friends that I still talk to. So in a way, it was kind of nice to be able to realize that those are friends I’ve had for now so many years.”

Bailey Carlin, a 28-year-old social media consultant, posted a solo photo from a fraternity mixer from his time at SUNY Plattsburgh. In the photo, he is shirtless and wearing a pair of overalls, with a wry smile and holding a can in a brown paper bag.

“I think we’re in a period of people looking back toward fonder times and more carefree times, and I can’t think of a more carefree time than 21 years old,” Mr. Carlin said.

“Carefree” was also how Kat Grisanti, a 35-year-old quality assurance engineer from Charlotte, N.C., described that period of her life. She shared several photos with college friends from SUNY Albany. Flipping through them, she said, made her remember that back then, she was living in a “fantasy world.”

“I felt like when I was 21, the sky was the limit of what I could do,” Ms. Grisanti said. “I really believed that if I thought I could do anything, I could do it. I miss being a little naïve.”


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