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How the present helps us embrace the past

Facebook is now 10 years old but it appears the things people now want to share on the platform are much older. People aren’t so much interested in what their friends are doing now so much as what they were doing then. This, I believe, is symptomatic of a broader cultural trend that is often neglected in marketing circles.

The greatest levels of engagement are (marriages and births etc. aside) for those personal, shared moments from the past.  Nothing gets people talking like a colour-saturated photo depicting a slice of life from the eighties. My particular recent favourite is this from my old school mate, Seb.

Blagging his way into 1st class in 1984 (a habit he’s maintained by the way), he enjoyed champagne and cigarettes all the way to Australia.

‘Throw-Back Thursday’ has been a huge success where, you’ve guessed it; people post old photos on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.

The beautiful 1927 Friese-Greene film of London also demonstrates how technology is helping us remember the past. The British Film Institute applied computer enhancement to reduce flickering and make the 87 year old film strangely contemporary.

Conversely, it’s interesting that part of the appeal of Instagram is the filters that artificially date our photos.

But the rise of the past in our present isn’t simply a technology push – the past is playing an increasingly more important cultural role.

MIT Medialab talks about a pendulum shift back to reality. Money enters and leaves our bank accounts without us seeing it, our friendships are something we experience on our mobiles, and our books something we download. We are hankering for the things that we can hold and touch. This is an observation backed up by JWTIntelligence’s 2013 ‘Embracing Analog’ report, which describes it as ‘a response to the evaporation of so many physical things into intangible formats’.

Times of trouble, not least a protracted recession, can also help explain this – people reach for the security of better times. No coincidence then the recent reemergence of trusted high street banks TSB and Williams and Glyn.

In Simon Reynold’s excellent book, Retromania, he suggests that the past will always have an important role in any present, but that never before has a culture been so obsessed by its immediate past – be it in music, film or fashion. We have amazing technology, he goes on to argue, but too often it’s used as a time machine to indulge in nostalgia.

So there is something almost ironic in that it is contemporary technology that is enabling people to embrace their past. Bringing this back to the day job, how many brands with a deep heritage are using this to succeed in the modern age? In my opinion, not enough.

Richard Morris is Managing Director for Vizeum UK