Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Even that line has been mothballed and surpassed (“Entropy isn’t what is used to be”) and has become a creaky involuted joke of sorts upon itself. Nostalgia is different today, as our memories have been digitized, commercialized, and sold back to us, and the rate of change outpaces our ability to stop and lament the fact that we’ve stripped nostalgia of a lot of its raw power. Processed, post-digital nostalgia makes us nostalgic for hazy, pre-digital nostalgia at a spinal level. It’s helped ignite a run on nostalgia–Instagram comes to mind– but our attempts to manufacture it are pointless for consumers and dangerous for brands.
The digitization of memory
No one would argue that one of our biggest nostalgia vectors is imagery. In her essay On Photography Susan Sontag said that modern photography had changed the viewer by creating an overabundance of visual material and by desensitizing the audience. This was 1973. “Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” A picture evokes, a hundred pictures numbs, and the kind of twitchy high-rep shutterbug maximalism enabled by digital photography and virtually limitless storage has created a noisy digital gauze that masks memory with too many pixels.
The past also had big proportions. If there had been countless photos or videos of the past, the objective information would probably tell us different stories from the ones we choose to remember. The forest you got lost in when you were 5 is a copse of trees behind the shed. The tree you scaled when you were 8 was not 80 feet but 20. Digital photography takes memories that are idealistic and unrealistic and fossilizes them in 7/8-scale color-corrected realism. But digitization’s assault on nostalgia is really only getting started.
The zombification of nostalgia
Anything that affects us at an emotional level is exhaustively mined for commercial reasons, but this has only intensified with digitization and new media. One could argue that Coca-Cola was the first marketer to use nostalgia as a business model, but today’s hottest consumer tech brands take it to math and machine-driven new heights. Your Kodak moment just got cropped, tagged, filtered, published, shared, liked and stored forever. Great for memory, not so good for nostalgia. How about we frame it with dynamic ads, cool?
As one writer put it, “Images of our weddings and graduations, memories of kids’ births and grandparents’ faces now get snugly wrapped by ads for automobiles and toothpaste. The commercialization of our personal and collective pasts has significant cultural and marketing implications. As a matter of fact, it’s now doing what was heretofore unthinkable: It’s killing nostalgia dead.” Of course, nostalgia can’t be killed dead. Even as it’s hollowed out, its hollowing out is lamented, nostalgically. But the experience of our nostalgia had changed. If not less potent, it’s made less delicate, and less personal.
This is the endgame, perhaps, then: packaging the past as the future and selling our memories back to us, one freemium at a time. Look at today’s three hottest consumer tech brands. Etsy, Pinterest and Instagram all combine a pre-digital activity (scrapbooking, photography, handicrafts) with new rewards and a social platform. How sophisticated is “Nostalgia Innovation”? Pinterest was the fastest brand ever to 10 million visitors, averages 89 minutes per visitor, has become a significant source of referral traffic for retailers, and has yet to scratch the surface of its powerful database of detailed information about our tastes, interests and favorite brands.
It’s too tempting and too easy for brands to slouch their way into lite, digital “neostalgic” templates or slump back on a 100-year brand story. But no matter how powerful a brand’s heritage, it has to keep innovating or get out of the way, even, or perhaps especially, in the new markets built on nostalgia. When nostalgia legend Kodak thought they were in the picture business and forgot they were in the memory business they became a sitting duck for Instagram. By balancing heritage with innovation, and by combining old activities with new rewards, brands can reignite feelings for their brands while keeping an eye open for the next market. But this isn’t Grandma’s apron-type stuff. This is math, vast content tables, logic and relentless grinding futurism.