Embracing Analog: A Look at the Nostalgia Countertrend in the Digital Era
What was your first vinyl record? If you’re someone who came of age during the pre-CD/pre-MP3 era, it’s almost guaranteed that you remember not only the album but also the entire experience around it.
Mine was Prince and the Revolution’s Purple Rain. I still remember racing home from the local record shop to carefully place the needle on the first groove. As the inevitable overplay began, I examined the iconic album art: Prince in his over-the-top purple jacket, perched on his one-of-a-kind purple motorcycle, surrounded by a puff of purple smoke. It was epic.
I’m not the only one waxing nostalgic about vinyl these days. The numbers speak for themselves: U.S. vinyl sales grew for the fifth consecutive year in 2012, with a 19 percent year-over-year increase.
As digital becomes more pervasive, it seems that we are increasingly fetishizing the physical and tactile. We’re embracing things like old-time typewriters, wristwatches, physical books and face-to-face time with friends and loved ones—things being rendered obsolete in the digital era. As we spend ever more time in the digital world, we increasingly value the time we don't spend in front of a screen—the time we spend with real people and real things.
Indeed, in a March survey that JWT conducted in partnership with Frank Rose, author of The Art of Immersion and correspondent for Wired, we found that more than two-thirds of American adults sometimes feel nostalgic for things from the past, like vinyl records and photo albums, and more than six in 10 have a greater appreciation for things that aren’t used as much as they used to be, like record players and film cameras. This appreciation is felt more by the younger generations, with 67 percent of millennials and 65 percent of Gen Xers in agreement, compared with 56 percent of baby boomers.
While we’ve always had a fondness for things that speak to older ways of living, objects that hearken back to different times strike an especially strong chord today, particularly among digital natives. "Embracing Analog" is a digital-era countertrend—a response to the evaporation of so many physical things into intangible formats. For consumers, these responses coexist with their embrace of tech-centric lifestyles; indeed, the stronger that embrace, the stronger the urge to experience the polar opposite.
Perhaps that explains why the millennial generation is picking up the practice of handwriting notes to send through the mail. Or today’s paper renaissance: The global stationery and card market is expected to reach $111.8 billion by 2016, a 25 percent increase since 2011, according to an August 2012 report from MarketLine. The further from email the better, with letterpress-printed cards and embossed papers especially popular.
These things represent a counterpoint to our always-on, real-time world of bits and bytes. They appeal to our urge to de-tech, as they follow a different, manual pace.
They also appeal to our search for “authenticity.” Increasingly, it’s the “imperfect” that feels especially authentic—a counter to the standardized, mass-produced or otherwise polished offerings that prevail today and the smooth, shiny surfaces of our digital devices. Imperfections on physical objects, such as scratches or scuffs, give them personality, according to 59 percent of our survey respondents, with millennials (67 percent) and Gen Xers (60 percent) leading the way.
In this age of authenticity, face-to-face will trump face-to-screen interactions. In a separate survey that JWT conducted a few years back, we found that 63 percent of American adults wish they could spend more time communicating with friends and family in person rather than through technology; again, the digital-centric millennials (70 percent) were more apt to say this than Gen Xers (61 percent) or Boomers (57 percent).
We’re becoming nostalgic about what’s getting lost in our rush to progress, since we’re still working out where slow communication and the tactile fit in to our new way of living. An MP3 version can’t beat my scratched-up vinyl copy of Purple Rain, quaint as it may feel, nor could a live-streamed concert replace the rush of watching Prince in the flesh.