We were all young once, but the Internet has never been old, only existing as the briefest blip in the continuum of human existence. This writer only got email, for the first time, in the late '90s. Blogging as we know it has existed for about a decade. We've been busily populating the World Wide Web with everything new under the sun, but the time has come to start retrieving the old, too. BuzzFeed's new nostalgia vertical, the retro-styled and -named Rewind, is reaching back to bring the past to the present, even declaring September "Nostalgia Month." (They've done this for a while, but there's a whole vertical for it now, your one-stop shop for all nostalgic needs.) A look at what's being posted provides plenty of old-school-ish eye candy, ranging from the unspirational "Get Ready to Feel Old" to a piece on folks who sold their faces to advertise, via tattoo, companies that no longer exist (oops). These reminiscences are quintessentially BuzzFeed: a bit giddy, full of photos, and so buzzily told they are old-writ-new, familiar fare of old people repackaged for the youngs. Fun! Nostalgic! And ready to be spread via social media avenues and across the Internet in ways that were only just beginning to be considered in the '80s and early '90s, times which get their due attention on the vertical.
Yet as someone who lived the full length of the '80s in a talking-and-walking state, it's a weird sensation, this rebranding of our stuff, now being appropriated for those who weren't even there to experience it in real time. A nostalgia blog for days in which we lived: Is this necessary? Don't we have other things that still haven't been said yet; do we have to rush to reclaim the past already? Of course, the taking away of our nostalgia is in itself suitably nostalgic: It's a sad word, meaning that we're homesick, "yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition." Those days we had were gone, and there's nowhere that's more clear than online—even when we do write about them it's with the understanding that our now is forever different, often because of the Internet.
But it's not all sad. We like to remember those things, the books we read, the movies we watched, the boy bands we lusted after, the horrible hairstyles we rocked. We can wink and nudge and remember OMG, did we really use a banana clip in our moussed tresses? A Trapper Keeper to hold our various pencil-scripted notes? How about how we were always making mixtapes for one another, or drinking Clearly Canadians, or Zimas, or goodness gracious, playing Atari or using that funny printer paper with the holes in the sides back in the '80s? Remember those color-block Benetton shirts, or Z. Cavaricci pants? MC Hammer, Young MC, glam rock and hair bands, getting our acid-washed jeans signed in Sharpie at that Poison concert, not being allowed to buy the Guns N' Roses Lies album because of the scandalizing bare-breasted woman depicted inside? Was anyone around for the very first time a music video appeared on MTV—and, God, remember when MTV was all music videos, Kurt Loder and John Norris and Tabitha Soren, or the old days of Headbangers Ball? Remember, even, when there were no blogs, no usable Internet at all? We brought word processers to college, and before that, maybe typewriters; we read books and newspapers and not screens. Somewhere along that time came Dos, and after that, we had AOL accounts, and after that, maybe hotmail or Yahoo and Friendster and MySpace pages and, Wow, we feel old. BuzzFeed was right.
What happens, though, when we wrench all the stuff from the past into the endless digital present? What used to be the shared fond memories of a certain generation are suddenly fodder for endless blog posts in the style of the way we do things now. Imagine, in the old days (i.e., pre-Internet), how you might attempt to learn about the 1950s. You'd order some books and magazines, maybe, or find them at a yard sale. You'd go to a library and study the microfiche. You'd talk to someone who lived back then, or watch old videos of programs you managed to find. You'd gather the evidence and you'd interpret it on your own. Today, all you need to do is turn on your computer, and the stuff is here for you, handily packaged, consumable—even, sometimes, the work of interpreting it has already been done for you. (How embarrassing, these hairstyles! How silly, these cats!) Flash forward to the 2020s, and what will we find? To some extent, though, this constant making-into-blog-fodder of everything should have been predicted. There is nothing not up for consumption by the giant Internet beast that's only growing bigger.
But, yes, we love nostalgia. It's part of the popularity of shows like Boardwalk Empire; it's why we coo over those old-fashioned subway trains that run in New York City during the holidays; it's why we watch A Christmas Story every year; it's part of why movie-makers continue to insist on re-making certain movies, over and over again. It's why when we realize that, say, The Real World is 20 years old, we feel both glee and sadness. It's why we love looking at old photos, old signage, old things. Regardless of the decade, we all experience times and grow out of them, or they end, and then we inevitably reflect back to who we were when, inevitably, we get reminders of those times. Nostalgia allows us to be experts at the same time that we're superior-minded curmudgeons to those who came after—kids who can only imagine how it felt to see the original Beverly Hills 90210 not in reruns, or to live in a world in which we recorded programs on VHS, presumably for posterity, but actually, now that we think about it, just for a landfill. You don't even know, you young whippersnapper. You have barely lived. (Even if you were born using the Internet.)
What was then is no longer what it is now, we see in that change the passage of time, and that is both thrilling and sad and endlessly fascinating. That is the power of nostalgia, being able to announce at each progressive birthday "God, I'm sooooo old!" and truly mean it, until the next one when you realize that that birthday before, you had no idea what you were even talking about. Weren't you adorable back then? We love that feeling of growth and change and the idea of retrospective ownership, so it's not surprising that at some point in our collective, if still brief, Internet history we'd start reaching back into the archive, bringing that which happened previously forth and restyling it as its own official thing, posting it for the new, hopefully dual audience of those who experienced it in real time and those who will look on it as a new experience. It's not that different than what's always happened; the Internet just makes all this faster and easier, more universally accessible, more automated. But it also means that its value as nostalgia starts to become debatable. No longer is it the possession of the small group of people who knew it when and can hark back to it; it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the entire Internet, it's suddenly a collective history. And in looking at such things online, it's not that we're homesick, it's just a new kind of reality. We don't long for what was so much as it becomes hard to remember what any of it used to be.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.