Across social media lately, nostalgia feels inescapable; from the resurgence of Y2K and 2014 Tumblr “emo” as aesthetics and fashion trends to endless reboots of classic shows and movies. Even through our memes—the very DNA of the internet—the influence of nostalgia is pertinent. Some of the latest meme formats hone in on beloved childhood memories like the Little Miss books and American Girl dolls with, of course, Gen Z’s trademark self-aware, sardonic, dark humor wrapped up in at least five layers of irony and internet in-jokes.
What’s interesting about nostalgia is that, in online spaces, it has been massively accelerated. We have people feeling nostalgic not just for the 2000s, but 2014 Tumblr teenagerdom, the “good old days” of 2019 TikTok, and 2020 coronavirus lockdown TikTok.
If it were any other context, feeling nostalgic for a time period that’s as little as two years ago feels absurd. But on the internet, it has become the norm due to the speed of social media. But how did this come to be? Passionfruit spoke a range of experts in order to unpack how and why nostalgia became such a key influence and driver of online culture:
@luna_bunni it was kinda vibes tbh #fyp #relatable #foryoupage #meme #slay #quarantine #lockdown #nostalgia #throwback ♬ original sound – Luna
In many ways, the very nature of memes makes it easy to be nostalgic. Dr. Diana Zulli, an assistant professor of communication at Purdue University, told Passionfruit that nostalgia and memes are “inextricably linked” because both are used to connect people. According to Dr. Zulli, nostalgia “functions in a similar way” to memes.
“To participate in a meme, online users must be ‘in the know’ or have some shared experience,” she explained. Similarly, with nostalgia, “Groups of people are identifying moments from their past that impacted their lives,” she added. “Sharing these moments online will inevitably garner responses from other people who had similar experiences and are also ‘in the know.’”
Clinical psychologist Dr. Saul Rosenthal added that nostalgia and the internet are an ideal pairing because, online, “there is a vast deposit of history” that people can draw upon.
“It’s a history that can also be shaped and presented in particular ways, for example, that the past really was better than the present is or the future will be,” he explained in a statement to Passionfruit.
As mentioned, the Little Miss and American Girl Doll memes were a hugely popular and recent example of what happens when we blend our collective nostalgia and meme culture together. But what is it about these meme formats specifically that have made them blow up the way they have?
“Recent memetic trends like the American Girl Doll allow people to utilize a nostalgic visual format—in this case, photos of American Girl Dolls—and add hypothetical text-based storylines or scenarios for each doll,” cultural researcher Josh Chapendane explained to Passionfruit.
The American Girl Doll meme, he argued, is the “perfect vessel for people to embed nostalgic feelings into because the doll represents not just the commodity, but a symbol of the past.” Recent iterations of the meme, he noted, reference a vast range of past events to feel nostalgic over from pieces of history like JFK’s assasination to nostalgia for 2017 Instagram phenomena.
Meanwhile, nostalgia is also a key factor when it comes to remixing Roger Hargreaves’ popular Little Miss children’s books. The meme involves remixing or parodying the books with more complex, relatable experiences like searching for medical diagnoses online. As Chapendane argues, “Hargreaves’ characters are familiar with a wide enough audience that the meme format can be both easily understood and shared.”
Moreover, Dr. Rosenthal added that the high speed of the internet has shortened the usual time lapse of trend cycles on the internet, which means that “the same periods of time seem longer and longer.” The rapid pace of trends has been exacerbated by the pandemic, according to Dr. Rosenthal.
“The world of 2019 seems decades ago,” he said.
In terms of how nostalgia shapes the internet, clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow also claimed that the pandemic “fundamentally changed our perceptions of time and circumstances.”
“Because the pandemic changed how we live so significantly, it becomes a marker for nostalgia. This is the case because pre-pandemic WAS a different place and time,” Dr. Klapow told Passionfruit.
Suddenly, all those TikToks yearning for the “simpler” days of lockdown trends like Dalgona coffee two and a half years ago make a lot more sense—how else can we describe it but nostalgia?
When it comes to nostalgia, it’s synonymous with comfort: that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you think of a time that made you happy. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Carla Marie Manly, this is another factor in the rise of nostalgia on social media. In a world where things are objectively terrible, more people are turning to nostalgia as a means of self-soothing.
“Given that the state of the world—from climate change to political unrest—is creating a great deal of anxiety and stress for many people, nostalgia-based activities and inclinations offer a healthy way to cope with feelings of distress and sadness,” she explained. “Whether reminiscing about Y2K trends or engaging with American Girl doll memes, the reflection on happier times in the past can offer psychological relief.”
Dr. Manly also pointed out that nostalgia has its origins in the Greek word for “homecoming,” which, she says, makes a lot of sense given the comforting role both our home and nostalgia plays for us.
“Indeed, when we are nostalgic, our minds do engage in a ‘homecoming’,” she added. “A return to times that felt ideal.”
In fact, the more we dig into the origins of nostalgia, the more its symbiotic relationship with social media platforms makes sense.
“Originally coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688, nostalgia was once a medical diagnosis,” cultural critic Matt Klein points out. “However, and now ironically, nostalgia has since evolved into a self-treatment.”
On the face of it, expedited trends and nostalgia cycles are harmless. After all, how can something that’s essentially a source of comfort have adverse consequences? For Klein, the problem with our overreliance on nostalgia—or as he describes it, a “therapeutic time machine”— is that it lays bare the fact that we’re inhabiting a “largely stunted culture.”
“If our current moment is embodied by artifacts and styles of prior eras, how will we look back to define this moment? What is our zeitgeist’s export beyond perfected upcycling?” Klein asks, adding, “That’s our missing insight when it comes to nostalgia: we’ll inevitably miss this moment too. Let’s hold onto it.”