Have you noticed the 90s resurgence lately? Full House is back as Fuller House on Netflix; once-retired Surge can be found at a gas station near you; soon, beauty fans can rock their favorite Bath & Body Works scent from back in the day. (Sun Ripened Raspberry, anyone?)
Brands have long attempted to tap into nostalgia to create an emotional connection with the consumer. In the age of social media and near-constant digital content consumption, however, our experience of nostalgia may be changing.
Through social media, we can catalog nearly every aspect of our lives; tools like Timehop or Facebook’s “On this day” feature make it easy to peek into the past, for better or worse. Mad Men‘s Don Draper once famously said, “Nostalgia is delicate but potent.” Could the explosion of digital content mean nostalgia is losing its potency?
As an emotion, nostalgia taps into our human desire for context and perspective—a reminder that we have lived through meaningful moments and experiences. But it’s possible digital content overload may be affecting the way we process information and make memories.
Americans spend 5.6 hours per day interacting with digital media, according to Mary Meeker’s internet trends report. And this consumption comes through a variety of channels. Domo, a business intelligence company, has documented the crazy explosion of content across social media devices and apps in a fascinating infographic. Every minute of every day, the world’s 3.2 billion internet users send nearly 350,000 tweets, share over 280,000 snaps, and Like over 4 million Facebook posts.
The ability to engage with this data essentially anytime, anywhere, has resulted in declining attention spans, research has shown. Researchers from Microsoft surveyed 2,000 participants in Canada and tracked the brain activity of 112 others. They found that the average human attention span is about eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000.
Still, despite our wandering attention spans and constant data bombardment, humans remain prolific producers of our own digital information. Thanks to smartphones and social media, we’re able to document as much as we want of our lives; the information is stored essentially forever. Nostalgia used to come on suddenly with a song on the radio or a whiff of a once-familiar scent; today, the past is easily accessed with a few taps.
In fact, our idea of “the past” may be changing thanks to so much data. Millennials wanting to relive the past aren’t reaching back as far to do it.
“We call this ‘early-onset nostalgia,’ where there is such an information overload that it has compressed their sense of time,” Jamie Gutfreund, CMO at agency Deep Focus, told Digiday. “Initially #tbt started off as a throwback to your childhood, but now, it’s throwback to last week.”
The availability and accessibility of our digital memories has big implications on how we experience nostalgia. The ubiquity of memories and photos serves to make nostalgia feel “increasingly redundant,” Charlotte Lytton writes in the Boston Globe. “Social media’s function as a conveyor belt of bite-sized nostalgia places its members right in the heart of this digital quandary, allowing anything you’ve ever entered to be spat back out on a whim.”
Apps like Timehop enable this nostalgic “conveyer belt” to continue ad infinitum. Timehop mines users’ social media profiles and resurrects old photos to remind you of what you were doing one or more years ago.
Facebook’s “On this day” feature follows a similar vein. By drudging up posts and photos from your past, the social network is hoping to encourage the emotion that will get you to share and comment again.
John Mullin, VP of Strategic Marketing at Javelin Marketing Group, calls this the “zombification of nostalgia.” Social media platforms are great memory-saving devices; they may not be that great at effecting actual nostalgic experiences. Facebook’s nostalgia-producing memories are selected by cold algorithms and ringed by hollow ads, developed and targeted to you based on those same memories. Nostalgia has changed. “If not less potent, it’s made less delicate and less personal,” Mullin writes.
Then there’s the question of whether our use of social media as a memory archive will eliminate the need for nostalgia at all. Perhaps the very fact that all of our memories are accessible will make nostalgia a redundant phenomenon. “Will our ability to have nostalgic moments fade as our ability to archive everything continues unabated? Will the reward/memory center of our brain turn vestigial, like our tailbones and wisdom teeth?” writes commentator Rick Paulas at The Morning News. “We don’t know.”
However it is triggered, nostalgia remains a powerful emotion. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that consumers who feel nostalgic are more likely to spend money.
Brands certainly have a trove of consumer data that could help them create personalized, nostalgic moments for users. And given the popularity of apps like Timehop, users might be more willing to receive nostalgic triggers from brands. Your favorite retailer could remind you of that special occasion dress you bought a year ago; a streaming music service could remind you of that song you played over and over last summer.
Unlike Paulas, I doubt that we’ll ever lose our capacity for nostalgia. It’s too powerful of an emotion; something hard-wired in our psychology to help fight loneliness and remind us of better times. What will change is how brands tap into that feeling.