“The Good Old Days”
When I think of nostalgia, I think of old photos like the ones below.
I can recall spending time with my great-grandfather and grandfather, horsing around with my cousins and brothers, and hanging out with childhood friends.
According to the Oxford American College Dictionary, “nostalgia” means “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” Nostalgia isn’t sparked only by old photos. Anything that we can associate to our past can trigger nostalgic feelings:
A window into the past, whether in the form of an old radio hit, a cherished childhood toy, or even a retro styled ad, has the uncanny ability to make us stop dead in our tracks and look warmly on the years gone by. This strong emotive pull that hurtles us back in time is commonly recognised as nostalgia and is exemplified by talk about ‘the good old days’. It’s a feeling that happens to all of us, and knows no geographic, cultural or generational borders – it’s a feeling that’s universal.
(Davies, “The Power of the Past“)
This summer, I took an elective called “Digital Nostalgia.” In this class, we looked at nostalgia from the perspective of digital media: videos, film, TV, social media, and technology. We thought about how these mediums make us feel nostalgic for the past. For the final project, we’ve been asked to look at the future of nostalgia: will it continue to follow a 20/40 year cycle, where things 20-40 years ago are now popular again, or will it change due to modern technology? And if it will change, how might that look? In this post, I examine the future of nostalgia and social media’s role in it.
Social Media’s Grip on Society
Much like the radio and television were popular formats of communication and entertainment in the 20th Century, social media is the popular format in the 21st Century. In nine short years, the percentage of social media users in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled.
The average person has five social media accounts and spends almost two hours (30%) a day browsing these sites (Lariviere, “Nostalgia in the Age of Social Media“). Interestingly, Gen X’ers account for 1.5 billion views every day on YouTube (Gross, “Marketing to Gen Xers?”).
With the proliferation of mobile technology, high-speed internet, and easily-accessible WiFi, we have 24-7 access to family, friends, news, shopping, and much more. Social media has connected us in countless ways. Just like it has radially altered how we live in the present, social media is radically changing how we interact with the past. Online phenomena such as “Throwback Thursday” and apps like Timehop or Facebook’s On This Day, serve up your online memories on a daily basis:
…nostalgia is no longer reserved for faded photos and fuzzy memories…the technology of new nostalgia can be used to bring a fresh perspective to old memories. Our lives are stored neatly in Facebook albums, or in chronological order on our Instagram profiles. It’s much easier now to seek out key moments in our lives… (Bradic, “The Power of Nostalgia in Social Media Marketing“)
Sharing digital versions of old photos or clips of home movies with family and friends may be how Baby Boomers and Gen Xer’s engage in nostalgic online activities, but using social media to be nostalgic means something entirely different to younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z’ers:
…to generations who have grown up documenting their lives online [it] is no longer an internal emotion or a quiet yearning for what has passed. Instead, it is a deafening roar of collective online voices about how far we’ve come, how we can present that progress, and how our teenage identities on MySpace can be reconciled with our twentysomething personas on Facebook.
(Baxter, “How the digital age turbocharged nostalgia”)
Moving forward into the new century, I believe this diversity in social media usage across the generations will change how we perceive nostalgia.
Nostalgia in the 21st Century: The New “Good Old Days”
The following quote is from Facebook co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg:
Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. They’re connecting with the audience that they want to connect to. It’s almost a disadvantage if you’re not on it now.
(Lariviere, “Nostalgia in the Age of Social Media“)
This quote identifies the different generational uses of social media: some are using it to reconnect and reminisce about their past; others are using it to manage and market their digital identities. While many social media users are marketing their online personas to attract followers, better jobs and opportunities, advertisers are paying careful attention to the information being shared in order to build better profiles for their own marketing purposes.
Products come and go, but some, like Crystal Pepsi last summer and like Zima this summer, come back. Both are examples of nostalgia marketing, which is the use of “…themes or products from the past in your current marketing strategy to create a unique emotional feeling in customers,” (Jones, “Why Nostalgia Marketing Works“). The goal is to entice people who once enjoyed these products to buy them again and even convince newbies to try them:
For marketing, eliciting some sort of positive response in a consumer is one of the main communication goals of a brand. These emotive responses make us feel connected to brands, give them meaning to us and in turn make brands memorable, which all affect our consumer habits. As if it couldn’t get any better for marketers, nostalgia can actually prompt people to part with their hard earned cash.
(Davies, “The Power of the Past”)
What does this have to do with social media? It’s all about having a target audience. Advertisers want access to a focused audience, and social media can provide this. For the most part, social media is free thanks to advertisers who pay to advertise on the sidebars on social media sites and to gain access to the information stored in users’ profiles (Pumphrey, “How do advertisers show me custom ads?“). With information about age, gender, interests, hobbies, etc., advertisers now have a pretty good idea of what products to display to their audience on social media sites:
…the real transaction here isn’t you receiving enjoyment in the form of a free temporary distraction created by a media company at great expense, but rather, that media company renting your eyeballs to its advertisers. (McFarlane, “How Facebook, Twitter, Social Media Make Money From You“)
Nostalgia marketing is one way how nostalgia is being redefined in the 21st Century.
“Instant Nostalgia” and Muddying the Pop Culture Waters
Brian Raftery recently wrote an excellent article for WIRED in which he said this about the future of nostalgia:
In order for nostalgia…to survive, it needs a peg, and right now, culture feels pegless—millions of people, occupying millions of different parallel timelines and worlds, joined together only a few times a year. (Raftery, “Enjoy the Early-’00s“)
Typically, nostalgic cycles follow a 20- or 40-year rule: what was trendy or popular 20 or 40 years ago becomes trendy and popular again 20 to 40 years later (Gopnik, “The Forty-Year Itch“). Modern technology and social media allow Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ers to share memories from their respective generations with everyone all at once. This simultaneous and instantaneous sharing via social media is part of what I think of as “instant nostalgia.” We can instantly revisit a historical event or re-watch a favorite music video on YouTube, and then share that link on another social media site for others to instantly experience or re-experience. Multiply that countless times over and you have the “pegless” culture and parallel timelines that Raftery mentions in his article.
Raftery’s pegless culture and parallel timelines reminds me of what Douglass Rushkoff calls “digiphrenia” and “fractalnoia” in his book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, which I discuss in a separate post. For a taste of what Rushkoff says in Present Shock, here is a clip from an interview he did on NPR’s “All Things Considered” segment:
In his article, Raftery mentions how alternate content sources like Netflix and Amazon are “over-taxing the content grid” (Raftery, “Enjoy the Early-’00s“) with original programming that competes with mainstream programming for an already distracted audience base. Have you ever surfed the Internet or social media on your mobile device while watching something else on TV? I have. In addition to the mainstream and alternate sources, many social media sites allow users to share their own original content. YouTube is full of homemade videos that have gone viral. Ordinary people have become Internet celebrities hosting their own channels. Sites like Soundcloud and Mixcloud allow people to stream their own music (I’m Freijammer on Soundcloud) and be discovered by others (someone discovered me and shared one of my recordings). With all of these options available, are the pop culture waters being muddied to the point that 20 years from now we won’t have any common reference points as a society to feel nostalgic about?
A final thought on the future of nostalgia. Raftery predicts that years from now, it won’t necessarily be the content we feel nostalgic for, but the technology used to share and spread the content:
…my guess is that future waves of nostalgia will focus less on specific pop-cultural explosions, and more on the technologies that allowed them to spread. (Raftery, “Enjoy the Early-’00s“)
I recently watched CNN’s “The Eighties” series (ironically, I watched it on Netflix). One episode focused on the tech boom of the ’80’s: the Sony Walkman, VCR, home computer, mobile phone, and silicon chip. While many of these innovations may seem old now, many people long for them and seek out items from that time period. Think about the innovations that have come out since the turn of the century: the iPod (2001), MySpace (2003), Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), Twitter (2006), iPhone (2007), Android phone (2008), and iPad (2010). These are the tools and platforms that have accelerated nostalgia to the point where we look back fondly just a short five years ago and say “remember how cool that was?”
Imagine what it will be like 20 years from now when the Gen Z’ers are in their 40’s. As Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton used to sing on the theme for “All in the Family,” “Those were the days…”
Baxter, Holly. “How the digital age turbocharged nostalgia.” The Guardian. October 30, 2013.
Bradic, Lily. “The Power of Nostalgia in Social Media Marketing.” Social Media Week. July 27, 2015.
Davies, Ryan. “The Power of the Past: Nostalgia in the Digital Age.” Blog. Mediavision. August 5, 2014.
Gopnik, Adam. “The Forty-Year Itch.” The New Yorker. April 23, 2012.
Gross, Netta. Brianne Janacek Reeber. “Marketing to Gen Xers? Here’s What They’re Watching on YouTube.” think with Google. January 2017.
Jones, Kelsey. “Why Nostalgia Marketing Works.” Search Engine Journal. July 1, 2015.
Lariviere, Christine. “Nostalgia in the Age of Social Media: Identity, Meaning & Connection.” Medium. March 18, 2017.
McFarlane, Greg. “How Facebook, Twitter, Social Media Make Money From You.” Investopedia. n.d.
Pumphrey, Clint. “How do advertisers show me custom ads?” HowStuffWorks. n.d.
“Nostalgia.” Oxford University Press. The Oxford American College Dictionary. Published G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2002.
NPR Staff. “In a World That’s Always On, We are Trapped in the ‘Present.‘” “All Things Considered” segment. NPR. March 25, 2013.
Raftery, Brian. “Enjoy the Early-’00s Nostalgia Wave—It Might be the Last Revival.” WIRED. May 24, 2017.