Digital “Retrobait” Trades on Your Present Unhappiness to Collect Your Data

Memes that trade on a longing for bygone eras are retrobait, racking up likes and shares in the name of cozy nostalgia. But behind the warm, fuzzy feeling is a digital corporation extracting your data and making bank off your longing.

A viral retrobait image that, in reality, was taken in the late 2010s. (X)

In September 2021, a photo of a young woman went viral on X, back when it was called Twitter. In the picture, the woman is seated before a CRT television, turning to face the camera with a Nintendo 64 controller in her hand, an acid-washed denim jacket hanging on the chair. The walls of her room are covered in outdated floral wallpaper and posters of 1990s icons and classics, from Guns N’ Roses to Pulp Fiction. A few VHS tapes are placed on a shelf, along with a Super Nintendo console.

The caption for the photo read simply: “I want to live in this era.” Out poured a torrent of nostalgic comments. One user took the opportunity to rage against the present, posting “Bands knew how to play music, dating wasnt a swiping system that devalued the other person. . . . No one got canceled, twitter didn’t exist & google wasnt monitoring your every move.” Another simply said, “It was the best.” And another: “It was vastly superior to today. I genuinely feel sorry for those that grew up in the 2000’s.” (My favorite comment skewered the nostalgia completely: “every public restaurant smelled like stale cigarette smoke.”)

While these comments were heavy on nostalgia they were light on context. Just which era were they nostalgic for? There wasn’t much specificity, at first.

Soon, a user spied a poster on her wall of the Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 album AM and commented “2013?” — perhaps incredulous that someone would long to live in an era of recent history. The original poster replied, “yeah 2013. good detective work.” This prompted a bit of outrage, with one poster responding, “WTH? Arctic Monkeys? That’s not 90s.”

With a further bit of searching, someone else found a different picture of the same woman in her room, old TV and all. But in this photo she is wearing a Cuphead t-shirt. Cuphead, a successful and highly acclaimed shoot ’em up game, was released in 2017. The commenter reminded everyone that “we’re all living in this era.”

Curious, I did a bit of searching myself and came across a post dated June 9, 2020, of the same woman playing Nintendo 64 in her retro room. Indeed, we’re all living in this era because it was, in fact, just a few years ago.

What intrigued me about the viral photo wasn’t just that it had tricked so many into thinking it was taken a long time ago, but that it had prompted several shocked remarks. The photo appears as if it’s being transmitted to us from the past, and 2020 certainly isn’t the past — is it? Discovering the actual date of the photo awakened many from their nostalgia, and some were quite angry to be woken up.

Certainly, the technologies in her room — the CRT TV, the Nintendo consoles, the VHS tapes — all hail from a period well before 2020. These technologies are no longer easily encountered in our daily lives, a fact that has prompted collectors to scour the internet in search of them, willing to pay high prices for a rush of media nostalgia. Even I was easily fooled into believing the photo was taken long ago, simply by reading the context clues.

The photo is an example of what I call “retrobait”: an attention-grabbing nostalgic lure that invites individuals to express and share their nostalgia with others. Retrobait is often encountered in digital environments, on social media, streaming platforms, and web pages. It is quite valuable in the digital economy because it encourages users to engage with others on the platform by sharing particularly cozy nostalgic feelings, which inevitably keeps them scrolling and sharing. If retrobait goes viral, then it’s presented to others across the platform, where it racks up likes and comments, increasing its virality. Most of the time retrobait images are paired with nostalgic rhetoric, like the photo with its longing caption to live in that vague era.

But of course, behind all that nostalgic expression is a digital corporation extracting your data. In my book The Hours Have Lost Their Clock, I explain that retrobait isn’t limited to posts on X. Streaming platforms, genealogy companies, retail multinationals, and even artists themselves routinely create retrobait to increase user engagement online. So do social media companies. Perhaps the most famous example of large-scale retrobait is Instagram, which quickly attracted millions of users in the early 2010s because they could apply nostalgic filters to low-resolution digital photos and then share them with others. Scroll back through a user’s Instagram feed, and you will see how visual aesthetics on the platform have changed from Kodak-core to crystal clarity, matching the degree to which filters became less popular as smartphone cameras advanced. Early Instagram photography foregrounded its editing to make photos appear as if they were shot on instant film. Many photos posted to Instagram today are edited of course, but the editing is less obvious, more discrete. And smartphone cameras can subtly autoenhance photography with algorithms, while the iPhone’s Portrait Mode autoblurs the background behind a subject.

Early Instagram filters did two things: they made low-grade, early smartphone photos look less terrible and they mimicked the aura of analog photography in a digitally accelerating age. Instagram’s retrobaiting tactics worked. Now owned by Meta, the platform has roughly one billion monthly active users worldwide, some of whom don’t want or need to apply retro-looking Instagram filters to their photos because their smart cameras have already autocorrected the photos for them.

To understand retrobait, it’s important to note that it isn’t a genre. It’s a process. Anything from the past can be retrobaited by a corporation — especially if people have an emotional connection to it, or if a corporation is looking to make a franchise out of it. Retrobait can be a reboot of a once-popular series, or even the various year-end recaps offered by platforms, from Spotify to Instagram. It can invite nostalgic expression through Easter eggs in intellectual property vehicles like the Space Jam reboot or Free Guy. And, of course, individuals on social media can retrobait the past to drive engagement, like the viral photo of the young woman on X. Accounts like @memory.tok15 and @nostalgicfeels90 frame their nostalgic posts as “unlocking memories.” Often these accounts post images of old toys, TV shows, indoor malls, and high school hallways set to lo-fi beats or ambient synths. Top comments are crushingly nostalgic.

Retrobaiting also produces nostalgic subjectivities. To be a nostalgic subject is to be routinely inscribed in emotional patterns of longing, to not only be invited to express nostalgia in comments, but to also recognize the gulf widening between past and present, such that any return is impossible. Retrobait posits that the past is forever back there, out of reach, and we must suffer the pangs of remorse knowing we can never go back.

A retrobait video on TikTok with millions of views will likely invite longing comments, which will, in turn, invite even more users to comment. This pattern might provide a sense of community. Reaching out through the screen, users might bond over a shared nostalgia for a past considered too remote for restoration, trapped in a present too punishing and alienating for real connection and true meaning. Memories are framed as locked in the mind, awaiting their keys to freedom. But an unlocked memory does not actually revive any lost past. Memories come bounding out from their cells in the mind to remind us how much we’ve lost. What are we supposed to do with these newly freed memories? They hang around in our minds a bit, inconvenient reminders, and then we’re on to the next video. Another unlocked memory in the endless scroll of retrobait, a tear-soaked spiral down a nostalgic rabbit hole.

To the degree retrobait establishes community built on nostalgic expression, it is a volatile community, subject to emotional extremes. Its nostalgic pull draws other emotions like sorrow and anger into orbit. Users will comment about crying while watching retrobait, and some grow irritated when their nostalgic reverie is interrupted by the exposure of retrobait as deception, as was the case when a user discovered that the viral photo of the young woman wasn’t from the 1990s. Or, there is the possibility that anger could be inflamed in users who view the present as worse than the past. After all, retrobait posits that the present and the past repel one another like magnets with similar poles.

Certainly, there is some truth to the repulsion of past and present. In many ways the past and present are very different from one another, but through lines exist connecting past and present, and much of our perception of the past’s utopian qualities — its freedom, its interpretation as the “good ol’ days” — is due to nostalgia’s function as a life preserver in the present. When conditions are unquestionably dire for so many in the present, the past can serve as a point of stability and comparison, even though it might not have been. Obviously, this negotiation can go horribly awry, and all manner of fantasies can be conjured as “the past” to point out just how broken the present is. But retrobait rarely entertains the notion that past and present aren’t that different and that some differences are actually the result of memory, which can revise the past to suit the present’s needs.

The production of the nostalgic subject isn’t dangerous simply because it circulates nostalgia among the digital public, but because it suggests that the present is so unsafe, so damaged that only extreme measures will fix it. By contrast, the retrobaited past is presented as a haven where nothing bad happened — where cartoons aired on Saturday morning instead of breaking news stories. Arguing over what it was really like has proven to be futile, as more and more people forget that memory constantly renegotiates the past, and this renegotiation involves collaboration and revision. It’s a process that often threatens those figures who are incentivized to write history once and for all, often to advance a dominant ideology: normativity, masculinity, corporatism.

Retrobait isn’t harmless, but it certainly can inspire warm, nostalgic feelings in individuals. Instagram used retrobait not just to draw people to the platform, but to comfort them during times of media change, when new technologies are introduced into society and we’re expected to learn them. It might be hard to recall, but there was a time when we all had to “learn” how to use Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, and TikTok, just as we had to quickly learn Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. During these times, some may experience media nostalgia, a yearning for older, more familiar modes of communication. Retrobait is a method to get people used to new media when they’re yearning for the familiar and perhaps hesitant to learn a new technology. The viral photo I mentioned earlier works the same way. It made some X users open up about their nostalgic feelings, acclimating them to talking about their emotions with others and forging a kind of community through nostalgic reminiscing, albeit one that’s subject to the sudden flames of emotion.

But even though retrobait can make possible the conditions for bonding over shared emotions, its primary purpose is to keep you engaged on the platform. It is, in other words, a major boon to the digital economy. And the more we interact with retrobait online, the more algorithms recommend it to us. Consuming nostalgic content isn’t always a negative action, even when algorithms recommend it, but retrobait is a reduction of nostalgia to identifiable cultural markers that attract mass engagement. So increased exposure to it narrows our scope of what nostalgia is and what it can mean.

Too often, nostalgia is a shorthand accusation for backwardness, but not every act of longing overlooks historical traumas. One can yearn for the past while recognizing its reality, as nightmarish as it might have been. Retrobait, however, tends to frame the past as idyllic, utopian, safe, and carefree. It often does not interrogate historical truths that question normative ideals. And it is a useful tool for digital platforms. By artificially amplifying nostalgia with retrobait, social media and streaming platforms can attract engagement.

When the original poster of the viral photo posted, “I want to live in this era,” they likely assumed that the comment would resonate with others because it articulates a basic longing to live in a time gone by. And yet, there is nothing dated or old about the photo. It was, after all, taken some time between 2017 and 2020. If living in that era means interacting with older media, then that’s quite simple to achieve today. I would know: I still own my SNES console from my childhood. A few years ago my wife and I beat Super Mario World together, and we had a great time doing it. I own a Game Boy emulator, and I have a small collection of video nasties on VHS. There’s nothing quite like watching a John Carpenter film on a CRT television. It captures an eeriness I don’t experience when I stream it on my flatscreen TV. I’ve connected with countless VHS dealers online who buy and sell vintage tapes of some of my favorite horror films and others I’ve never heard of before — including a few that aren’t streaming anywhere.

At almost any moment I could take a picture of myself next to my VHS tapes and old TV and share it online, and it might fool a few people into believing it was taken long ago — proving that retrobait is a present-day phenomenon. Instagram filters in the early 2010s and Disney’s WandaVision in the 2020s: these were created by people today, and they aren’t from the past. They represent what we think the past was like, not what it was. Retrobait is just the present’s rendering of the past. It’s a new creation, not something older.

But if retrobait merely tugged on our nostalgic heartstrings for older media, then it wouldn’t successfully drive engagement on platforms. No, the viral photo of the young woman didn’t capture the attention of so many users because she is surrounded by dated technologies and old pop culture posters in her room. The photo represents a lifeworld that, for so many, has disappeared — a world of youth. When we were young there was time to play games, to listen to music, to have our photo taken unposed. To live unburdened, with no responsibilities, none of the pressures that come with aging. To be present. Some of us who remember a time before the digital age associate the freedom of youth with analog technology, with living untethered from devices and apps. It’s an association that seems more apparent while scrolling on social media. But freedom means more than playing Nintendo 64. Even as it ultimately serves digital corporations, retrobait entices our basic nostalgic desires. Teens long to be children; adults long to be teens. This is an old sentiment, a human predicament. It predates us all.

“I want to live in this era” — this era, whatever year that might be. But what they meant was, I want to really live.