Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Memorial-Industrial Complex, or, How the Internet Uses Nostalgia

Megan Garber at The Atlantic very interestingly explores how the internet uses the warm, endorphin-glowy feelings associated with nostalgia as bait for our restless digital twitch:

"Nostalgia, the copious literature on it suggests, comes in two basic forms. One is organic... [that comes over you] unexpectedly, as a kind of pleasant pang—the stuff of sudden songs and serendipitous scents and sour-sweet Madeleines. The other form is a media product. It's the re-introduction of Uncle Joey and/or Dawson’s Creek's Joey and/or Blossom's Joey, appropriated to arouse a vague sense that we have lost something as we’ve moved, inexorably, into our future. This form of nostalgia is usually invoked, in one way or another, to sell us stuff.

"... It’s also notable how ambient nostalgia has become. The memorial-industrial complex ensures that our past—our collective past—permeates our present. That complex markets directly to memories that are shared, across generations and across demographics and across the culture. And the complex is extending, now, to the Internet."

Examples include Spotify's recommendations, oriented not just to your listening choices but "according to a user’s birth date... Spotify uses those data points, in part, to read users’ pasts back to them, offering up a fairly faithful (re-)rendition of the popular musical landscape as it existed when they were younger....  surfacing the songs that were popular across the culture when you were in junior or high school. The service is making the fair assumption that there will indeed be some overlap between your own musical past and the collective."

 "The point of all this past-leveraging, from Spotify’s perspective, is to realize the vague-but-also-urgent goal shared by many social networks and services: user engagement....  And an experience of the past that is customized—if not to a person, individually, then to that person's generational demographic.... It’s a targeted ad, essentially—and the thing being advertised is a person’s own past."

"Social networks in general, you could argue, are implicitly—preemptively—nostalgic, combining our pasts and our presences into a unified experience. Networks, however, are also experimenting with more explicit forms of nostalgia-baiting. Earlier this month, Facebook rolled out “Look Back” compilations that collect users’ most-liked photos, statuses, and life events into an easily viewable video. ...

"An app called Timehop promises to show you “photos and updates from this exact day in history.”

"Even Pinterest, which is most commonly associated with future-oriented and aspirational image-collecting, makes use of customized nostalgia. Gabriel Trionfi, Pinterest's user experience researcher, is a psychologist by training, and he points out that the flip side of anticipation—one of the emotions Pinterest uses to generation its own version of user engagement—is, yep, nostalgia."

Nostalgia is a known way to boost people's mood,” Trionfi told me.... So people are using Pinterest’s future-oriented platform, Trionfi says, to re-collect images from their past. "

" Many media outlets ("content producers," you could call them) are selling nostalgia in one form or another: There’s Retronaut and @historyinpix and the many similar—and controversial—features dedicated to the resurfacing of the past."

Garber also points to Buzzfeed's microgeneration-oriented quizzes like “25 Ways to Tell You’re a Kid of the ‘90s,” “50 Things Only 80s Kids Can Understand,” “53 Things Only ’80s Girls Can Understand.”)

Her conclusion: 

"Nostalgia, under the stewardship of the Internet, has been made nimble."

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