For an app primarily used by by young people, TikTok is oddly obsessed with nostalgia. Whether its obsession with childhood memories or Y2K fashion, the app is overrun with yearning for the past.
The hashtag #nostalgia has 18.9 billion views. Accounts like @nostalgia__hub, @thr0wback5, and @daily.dose.0f.nostalgia are dedicated to making videos that aim to make viewers pine for the not so distant past. The most popular nostalgia videos get millions of views and likes.
It’s disorienting to scroll through the app and be reminded of a forgotten childhood memory, yet one type of nostalgia TikTok trend aims to do just that. These videos are typically captioned something like “unlocking memories you forgot about.”
I’ve seen multiple “POV: it is the last day of school before Christmas break” videos and they are scarily accurate. These videos are a mixture of home videos, slightly pixelated photographs and images of the types of snacks at an elementary school classroom holiday party. All are set to music that’s intended to make you feel sentimental. One was set to Frank Sinatra’s version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
I’d completely forgotten about class holiday parties before seeing this TikTok which features elementary school students watching a movie, the DVD of Polar Express, and Lofthouse sugar cookies. I’ll admit when I stumbled across the video I got nostalgic and thought “those were simpler times.” I wasn’t alone. The video has over a million likes and has garnered nearly six million views. Popular comments on the video read “This makes me overly sad” and “It used to feel so magical too.”
There are hundreds of these POV videos, like “coming out of the pool after a long day of swimming” and “it’s a regular gym class during elementary school.” All these videos are specific enough to elicit a memory, but vague enough that most people on the app can relate.
Other nostalgia videos are so bizarre and oddly serious that they seem satirical. One reminds viewers of the Beverly Hills Chihuahuas, a trilogy of movies that came out from 2008 to 2012. The video is set to a dramatic sound not coincidentally named “Nostalgia” and flashes a handful of screenshots of chihuahuas from the movie. The comments on the video affirm that the video isn’t satirical. They read “oh my god. I forgot about those movies. god I miss back when I was little” and “i love that movie but now those dogs are probably dead.”
I’ll give users that long for the period of time when Beverly Hill Chihuahuas was popular the benefit of the doubt. It’s understandable that people are attracted to memories before coronavirus, herd immunity, quarantine, and social distancing were a part of our vocabulary.
Postdoctoral scholar David Newman at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at the University of California, San Francisco, told Mashable, “We tend to feel nostalgic when we’re feeling lonely or things aren’t going well.” Newman studies nostalgia and has published several papers on the topic.
“I would imagine that people have been feeling more nostalgic because we are living through this difficult time and people want to remember the good times when things were not this way,” continued Newman.
Looking back on shared memories can build a sense of community, added Newman. “There are certain types of nostalgic feelings that can have this sort of comforting feel and make you feel more connected to people,” explained Newman.
Some videos will only resonate with people of a certain age on TikTok. For anyone over the age of 25 a lot of the cultural references made in nostalgia videos like the online game Poptropica probably won’t connect. Since majority of TikTok users are young they are nostalgic for the same period of time, childhood. Older people have a longer, more diverse stretch of memories to feel nostalgic for.
According to Comscore, as of September, 60 percent of TikTok users are Zoomers. 32.5 percent of users are between the ages of 10 to 19 and 29.5 percent of users are between the ages of 20-29. Comscore does not track users under the age of 18.
TikTokkers aren’t just nostalgic for their own limited childhood memories of the early 2000s, but are nostalgic for the time period more generally.
Two of the top videos under the nostalgia tag are compilations of high school senior class videos, one from 2003 and the other from 2004. The people in those videos are in their late thirties now, not TikTok’s typical demographic. High school in the early 2000s is not an experience most TikTok users have, but alas they yearn for it and idealize it.
The class of 2004 video was posted by @throwbackclips_ and has over 29 million views and over 5 million likes. The video consists of a lot of underwhelming, awkward clips of high schoolers and is set to “Summer” by Calvin Harris which famously came out in 2014. The top comment under the video has over 400,000 likes and says, “I swear high school in the 2000s looks more fun than it is now.” Another popular comment reads, “I would give anything to be a part of this.”
Gen-Z’s obsession with the early aughts is also present in their love of Y2K fashion. This affinity for Y2K fashion is inherently nostalgic. One popular way to describe Y2K fashion on TikTok is “2000s babysitter aesthetic” which involves dressing like the teenage girl who babysat you in the early 2000s. By dressing like your old babysitter you are channeling what you fantasized being a teenager was like while you were growing up.
Adjacent to the babysitter aesthetic is Elena Gilbert aesthetic and Twilight aesthetic. Elena Gilbert style is based off of the main character of Vampire Diaries, which aired from 2008 to 2017. The Twilight series movies came out from 2008 to 2012. These converging aesthetics involve layering dark colored long-sleeve Abercrombie shirts with white camisoles and low-rise jeans.
Perhaps Gen-Z is so attracted to videos of high schools in the aughts and Y2K fashion because they grew up watching high school movies and television shows that took place in that period. Streaming allowed Gen-Z to become obsessed with high school shows that aired in that era like The O.C., Gilmore Girls, and Gossip Girl. These movies, shows, and babysitters they projected onto created their expectations of high school. In reality, their high school years were in unprecedented times and impacted by the pandemic. Maybe these videos and Y2K fashion allow young people to live out their fantasy high school experience.
Zoomers not only have had their formative years shaped by the pandemic, but are also facing the brunt of the climate crisis. It makes sense that they yearn for a simpler time. A time when directions had to be printed out on Mapquest, and texting was done in T9.