For its 10-year-anniversary earlier this year, Facebook automatically generated a "look back" video for each of its users. With slides announcing such monumental events as "your first moments" set to a contemplative, but still upbeat tune, the effect was similar to a photo slide show you may have watched during a '90s-era high school graduation.
It didn't matter that Facebook’s algorithms often misjudged the most important moments in its users lives. More than 200 million people watched their videos, and more than half of those people shared them on their Timelines. The company had succeeded in creating something that sells much better than accuracy: nostalgia.
"It bypasses intellect and reaches straight to the heart," says William Higham, a consumer strategist who has helped brands like the BBC and Universal Music leverage nostalgia. "It makes you feel emotional toward the brand." Thus, nostalgia's transition from its original classification as a "neurological disease of essentially demonic cause" to a marketing staple. In the '80s, Oscar Meyer dusted off its 50-year-old Weinermobile and took it for a tour. In the '90s, car manufacturers resurrected classic car names like Charger, Impala, and Thunderbird. Today, the '90s are being resurrected for the sake of selling everything from Internet Explorer to Old Navy clothes.
But Facebook's brand of nostalgia was different.
The social network had created nostalgia not around a defunct fad or a pop culture icon, but around moments that were neither particularly old nor particularly important. By focusing on you, the user, and the not-so-distant past, it created a waft of micro-nostalgia.
Social media has helped make micro-nostalgia marketing possible by supplying easily accessible content about individuals' past lives. Today's status update is yesterday's history, and that history seems to ripen for nostalgia much more quickly than our collective past. While hearing a popular song from last year might not yet trigger your yearning for better times, seeing a social media post you created one year ago, using an app called Timehop, somehow can. And though you’re probably not ready to browse through a photo album of cars or popular toys from 2010, you might order a diary of your tweets.
Perhaps, as Ross Crooks, the co-founder of the ad agency that helped Microsoft craft its '90s nostalgia ad for Internet Explorer, theorizes, this accelerated nostalgia is a product of technology. "I would theorize that the time period to incite nostalgia is a function of the rate of progress in society, he says. "With life moving faster as a result of technology, our perspective on the passage of time can be distorted. Looking back every now and then to see where we came from is a good thing."
Or maybe, as Higman argues, it's part of the same self-involvement that makes us feel our current selfies, status updates, and artistically photographed meals are worth sharing in the first place. "At a time when we were not focusing on ourselves, when we were focusing on other people, we wouldn’t’ care what we did one year ago," he says, "But we’ve become so self-obsessed and friend obsessed and so on, I think that’s really driving this interest in, 'look at what I did.'"
Whether beneficial or egotistical, it's difficult to deny the potential of micro-nostalgia for marketers. So far most attempts to leverage it have focused on past social media activity. Before Facebook's look back video, for instance, Intel created a "Museum of Me" in 2011 that pulls photos, videos, and friends from your Facebook account and uses them in a virtual exhibit. The end message: "Visualize yourself," followed by Intel’s logo and: "Look inside."
Twitter recently pulled off a similar look-back stunt in honor of its eighth birthday. Its version showed users the first tweet from any Twitter handle above a big blue button labeled "Tweet It!" Many users did. Some tweeted their own first tweet, often expressing regret—while casting out so much digital ephemera without a single care for posterity. Others tweeted first tweets from famous people like President Obama or Lady Gaga.
The strategy isn't, however, necessarily specific to social media. Brands know more about their customers than ever before. Your grocery store knows what you cooked for Thanksgiving. Target knows when you're pregnant. Your music service knows when you first started listening to your favorite artist. Any of this data could be re-purposed to remind you of the good not-so-old days. "It definitely will be worth brands reminding their customers about how they’ve interacted with the brand in the recent past," Higham says. "We’re in an age of massive disloyalty, and I think anything that reminds you that you used to be loyal is a positive."
In this way, the objective of micro-nostalgia marketing is not so different from those of nostalgia marketing in past decades. More than 20 years ago, a Newsday article mused that "advertisers, ranging from Budweiser and Ford to The Gap and Levi's, are trying to conjure up images of what is classic in order to instill—or revitalize—a classic aura in their own brands." Crooks more or less spells out the same benefits of resurrecting the '90s in last year's Internet Explorer commercial. "For Millennials, growing up in the ‘90s was a time of new experiences," he says. "The era was characterized by the new frontier of the web, and Internet Explorer was truly our portal into that world."
Today, at a time when new apps are threatening Facebook’s cool factor, the brand’s look back video is the equivalent of posting a billboard on its users’ news feeds that says, "Facebook has been in my life for a long time, and it’s been so much fun." Twitter’s first tweet generator might as well read: "Remember the good old days, when people were just figuring out how to use this? Look at how far we’ve come."
Never mind that time when you worried about privacy policies or how your content was being used to sell things. Micro-nostalgia paints a past full of roses and lollipops, while ignoring period-defining events like war, political scandal, and social inequality. "It harkens back to perceived better times," University of Louisville marketing professor Scott Johnson once told the Star Ledger. "That's the point of nostalgia, the self-deception of going back to an easier time in life."
As we document more and more of our lives, what has changed is the type of content brands can use to pull off this deception. When we share with tools like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, for instance, we are not so much documenting our lives, but rather a version of our lives that we would like other people to believe. And that may be the power of micro-nostalgia: When our manicured lives are played back to us—next year or next month or tomorrow—they’re easy for us to believe, too.