How the Internet Uses Nostalgia

Long-lost memories pop up in music recommendations, personality quizzes, and ads. Why?

Vanilla Ice is selling Kraft macaroni and cheese now. The dudes of Full House are selling Greek yogurt. Boyz II Men recently made a cameo on How I Met Your Mother. This year's Super Bowl featured, of all people, Flea. We are having a moment of '90s nostalgia, occasioned in part by millennials (or The Youths or Those Kids or whatever you want to call them) who are aging into adulthood and therefore eager to relive their childhoods.

Which leads to, among other things, Ice coming back—yet again—with a brand new invention. And he's in good company, too. The boxed dinner the returned rapper would like you to buy? It features noodles that are shaped like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

***

Nostalgia, the copious literature on it suggests, comes in two basic forms. One is organic, the kind that washes over you when you see an old picture of yourself and your cousins, aged 7 and 9 and 10, giggling maniacally while innertubing on Lake Michigan. The kind that emergences unexpectedly, as a kind of pleasant pang—the stuff of sudden songs and serendipitous scents and sour-sweet Madeleines.

The other form—the form that may well feel most familiar to us at this point—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. You could, because of that, dismiss its validity (fauxstalgia?). But it will live on, inevitably, because media producers know exactly what advertisers have long understood: that nostalgia, like sex, sells.

The products of that basic insight, whether they're movies or TV shows or weird appearances on terrible CBS sitcoms, tend to permeate the culture miasmically, their shiftings shaped by Hollywood and Wieden + Kennedy and the producers of Super Bowl Halftime Shows. And they can be good. They can be, sometimes, great! Take The Lego Movie (pardon me, The LEGO® Movie). And also: Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire and Masters of Sex and any theater that has ever offered a midnight showing of The Big Lebowski.

As market goods, however, these products can also be recursive: Mad Men begat not only Banana Republic’s ’60s-inspired clothing line, but also books like Mad Women: The Other Side of Life on Madison Avenue in the '60s and Beyond. Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby wasn’t merely a movie; it was also an album (a Target exclusive of which features three bonus tracks!) and a line of Brooks Brothers clothing and a collection of Tiffany jewelry.

While, sure, commercial culture is commercial, 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.

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Donovan Sung manages discovery and recommendations at Spotify, the streaming music service that, as of the end of last year, claims 24 million active users and 4.5 billion hours’ worth of song streams. Sung spends a lot of his time thinking about how to engage users and encourage their loyalty through the particular medium of music—about how to make those billions of hours, essentially, time that users will consider well spent. One of those ways is through what Spotify calls “stories”: little advertisements that live within the app and surface song recommendations to users.

The stories vary in their messaging. Some are about making lateral connections between different songs and artists (“You listened to Otis Redding this week. Want to try James Brown?”). Some are about connecting users to their geographic settings (“This album by Foster the People is trending near you”). Some are about connecting users to songs whose rhythm or moods they might find appealing (“You listened to Neutral Milk Hotel this week. Want to try Sea Wolf?”).

But some of Spotify’s most effective stories, Sung told me, take a slightly different tack: They present songs based not on your activity within Spotify, but on your activity outside of it. Activity that occurred long before Spotify was a gleam in Daniel Ek's eye.

So some of the stories you’ll see on Spotify look like this:

And like this:

These recommendations vary according to a user’s birth date, which is one of the pieces of information Spotify gathers from its new members when they first sign up for the service. (Gender is another one.) 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.

In all this, to be clear, Spotify isn’t necessarily surfacing the songs you were listening to when you were in high school. (Its data-tracking notwithstanding, how could it possibly know about the Fiona Apple phase you went through sophomore year?) What it’s doing, instead, is 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. And that, whether or not you care to admit it today, hearing “Hit Me, Baby, One More Time” again will take you right back to a particular moment in your life—that time you danced to it. That time you heard it on the radio as you were driving back from soccer practice. That time you tried, and totally failed, to unhear it.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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