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Will the Web Kill Nostalgia?

The Internet may make old products instantly and easily accessible, but it can't return us to the time period in which we enjoyed them.
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(Photo: mountain-top/Flickr)

(Photo: mountain-top/Flickr)

In 2015, sometimes it seems as though our not-so-distant pop-culture past is just as prevalent as our pop-culture present. In the movie world, for example, producers are currently developing new live-action films based on the animated adventures of '80s fixtures He-Man and Jem and the Holograms. During the most recent winter holiday season, Strawberry Shortcake was busy selling Hondas on TV. Perhaps because it was the franchise’s best decade, in late February the Chicago Bulls put together a '90s night for one of their home games. Then there’s Throwback Thursdays and Flashback Fridays, the weekly reminiscing fests that involve thousands, if not millions, of people sharing bittersweet memories across social media.

Nostalgia gradually "shed [its] geographical associations and became a temporal condition: no longer an anguished yearning for the lost motherland, but a wistful pining for a halcyon lost time in one's life."

Nostalgia is everywhere. Childhood merchandise, music, and music videos are archived and readily accessible on sites such as eBay, Spotify, and YouTube. People flock to Facebook groups such as Give Me My '80s Cartoons and relish BuzzFeed lists titled "21 Little Satisfying Things Every ’90s Kid Did." And there’s good reason for all this: According to research, nostalgia can help foster creativity, boost optimism, counteract loneliness, promote both mental and physical comfort, and even bring a sense of meaning to life. In a recent issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers found that nostalgia decreases people’s desire for money precisely because it increases feelings of social connection, and therefore feelings of security and stability. This effect is presumably why brands so frequently use nostalgia to pry money from people’s wallets. Indeed, a recent cover of the trade publication Adweek, featuring the rap duo Salt-n-Pepa, declares that the 1990s are back—at least as far as marketing is concerned.

But here’s the thing: For nostalgia to work, the objects that evoke it have to go away for a while, or at least be beyond reach. There must be distance. With the Internet, smartphones, and a 24-hour news cycle, however, everything from the recent past is relentlessly present. There's simply too little to long for if it's always available. If we take nostalgia to strictly mean a wistful longing for, or melancholic memory of, someone's past personal experiences (as opposed to, say, someone alive today yearning to live at the height of the Roman Empire), it seems conceivable, then, that for coming generations the feeling of nostalgia might eventually disappear—not due to over-exposure or diminished effect, but because of its inability to form in the first place.


When someone on the subreddit r/Nostalgia posted news last February that Disney plans to reboot its popular DuckTales cartoon series in 2017, many commenters rejoiced. One wrote, "2017? But I want it now." The thing is, though, a quick Google search pulls up the original series for viewing, right now. These aren’t new episodes, of course, but there’s no need to wait for that nostalgia fix. And while it’s true that people with record players and VCRs could re-visit their favorite childhood songs and movies at their convenience, no single home, neighborhood friend, or guy at the office has the inventory or sharing power of the World Wide Web.

A 17th-century Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer was the first to define and diagnose nostalgia. He considered the emotion a mental disorder, and found ample cases of it in soldiers away on military duty who longed to return home (in ancient Greek, nostos means “homecoming,” and algos means “pain” or “grief”). While psychologists eventually began to focus on the positives aspects of nostalgia, for centuries it was mostly approached as a negative.

In the prologue to 2011’s Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past, however, author Simon Reynolds outlines another significant shift in nostalgia’s history: Over the years, nostalgia’s focus has pivoted from place to time. As Reynolds puts it, nostalgia gradually "shed [its] geographical associations and became a temporal condition: no longer an anguished yearning for the lost motherland, but a wistful pining for a halcyon lost time in one's life." Why’s that? Well, presumably because with the invention of trains and telephones, people gained the ability to cross vast amounts of space with relative ease. In a sense, technology conquered physical distance, reducing it down in scope. Moving for work and vacationing on another continent became normal. The question now is if technology can do the same for our perception of time. And if so, does this mean nostalgia might come to an end altogether?

“In our research, nostalgia does seem to be exemplified by this idea of something that is rare or cherished,” says Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University and a co-author on several published studies of nostalgia. “It’s less rare if it’s accessible all the time.”

At the same time, however, Routledge adds that there’s little to no evidence suggesting that people who often engage in nostalgic thinking—whether that involves chatting with strangers on a Sega Genesis-related Internet forum or pulling old board games out of the closet—don’t benefit from it as much as people who do so less frequently. In other words, there’s no diminishing returns for those who choose to take daily swims in today’s ocean of nostalgia.

Jannine Lasaleta, an assistant professor of marketing at France’s Grenoble School of Management and the lead author of the aforementioned Journal of Consumer Research study, doesn’t think nostalgia’s in any danger of fading away: “People are nostalgic for a time gone past—they long for certain aspects of this past they cannot replicate in their present lives,” she writes in an email. “One reason that people like, say, '80s cartoons or things they did as a '90s kid is that these things remind them fondly of a time gone past they cannot repeat. To the extent that people still associate nostalgic times to nostalgic products, people will still feel nostalgic.”

"If I now watch these old races on YouTube it only rekindles my nostalgia, rather than eliminating it. This is because, even if I can access the product we 'consumed', I can no longer access the context in which we 'consumed' it."

So, that said, it seems time is trickier to overcome than space, and nostalgia won’t vanish anytime soon due to our inability to travel literally back into the past. Since nostalgia is, in part, a mental and emotional return to idealized innocence, the inevitable march into adulthood will always create a distinction between who we are and who we once were.


But there’s another important point to all this. When people feel nostalgic, they don’t simply yearn for the Nerf guns or Cabbage Patch dolls themselves; rather, they yearn for the context within which they first encountered and interacted with these objects.

In an email, Tim Wildschut, a professor of psychology at England's Southampton University and member of a group dedicated to studying the nostalgia phenomenon, elaborates on this:

Nostalgia is linked with meaningful, often social, personal memories. The “huge archive of childhood merchandise, music, videos, etc” that you refer to can serve as triggers of nostalgia but, in most cases, they are not the direct objects of nostalgia. For example, I have nostalgic memories of watching cycling races on television with my brother. The nostalgia derives from sharing this experience with him, not from the particular race we watched together. If I now watch these old races on YouTube it only rekindles my nostalgia, rather than eliminating it. This is because, even if I can access the product we "consumed”, I can no longer access the context in which we “consumed" it.

In the future, we might long for a simpler time when the quaint Tinder and Snapchat were how people met and exchanged information, but we probably don’t have to worry about getting nostalgic for nostalgia. Indeed, it may be that our interest in and discussion of songs, shows, and fashion styles from the '80s, '90s, and, not long from now, 2000s, continue to intensify. Recent research compiled by Routledge, Wildschut, and others suggests that nostalgia can bring a sense of stability to people who feel unstable in a rapidly changing world, such as our own.

In another email, Wildschut sends over an academic article published in 1977 by The Journal of Popular Culture. Its title: “Nostalgia, Identity, and the Current Nostalgia Wave.”

“It is just part of being human to feel nostalgic every now and then,” Wildschut writes. “That will not just disappear.”