Dispo Uses Nostalgia to Save Us From Ourselves

Illustration by Jozef Mikulcik

In the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma there is a fictional scene depicting a modern family trying to enjoy their dinner, where the mom decides each member of the family must place their phones inside a lockable cookie jar. The purpose is to be present in the moment, away from the distractions of social media. The photo-sharing app Dispo, which launched its beta in February, emulates a lockable cookie jar in the form of a digital disposable camera.

The invite-only beta maxed out its 10,000-person limit and drew immediate comparisons to Clubhouse, the audio-social network recently valued at $1 billion that debuted using a similar strategy last spring.

Dispo and Clubhouse are a new breed of apps that are bringing analog concepts into the digital world, while simulating the serendipity of the analog experience.

As The New York Times reported, soon after the beta was announced the app climbed the ranks in Apple’s App Store. Dispo-themed discussion rooms popped up on Clubhouse. YouTubers are sharing reviews, tips for scoring invites and growth hacks. Just as VSCO gave rise to the VSCO girl, Dispo has produced a stable of “Dispo boys.”

In Dispo, there are no options for user to choose filters or add captions. Users have to wait until the next day at 9AM for the pictures to ‘develop’. Founder David Dobrik was inspired through his experiences from parties where the hosts provided guests with disposable cameras and collected them in the morning. He wanted to recreate the experience of collectively revisiting the moments after the pictures were developed the next day. “This sounds so cheesy, but it really lets you live in the moment,” he said of disposables. “It doesn’t ruin the flow of a real moment you’re having….It doesn’t ruin the vibe in the room.”

The past couple of years have ushered a shift away from manufactured coolness, accentuated by the rising polarity between the preferences of Millennial and GenZ users. Taylor Lorenz observed this this trend early in 2019 as young influencers such as Emma Chamberlain, Jazzy Anne, and Joanna Ceddia were garnering popularity through a messier and more unfiltered vibe. “While Millennial influencers hauled DSLR cameras to the beach and mastered photo editing to get the perfect shot, the generation younger than they are largely post directly from their mobile phones,” Lorenz wrote in the Atlantic.

On Instagram, the act of shooting with a disposable Fujifilm camera and developing the photos to scan on the app was certainly on trend in 2019. Celebrities like Gigi Hadid dedicated a separate Instagram account for posting pictures taken from disposable cameras.

When viewed through the prism of storytelling, the pictures on Instagram and Dispo sell two different narratives. Instagram tells the story of expectations — users curate their timeline to manufacture expectations about their personal brand. With Dispo, the pictures tell users their own story without the baggage of any projected layers. By adding a forced time interval between the experience and the narration, the user is afforded a chance to revisit the raw moment from a fresh perspective.

Why would anyone deprive themselves of the instant gratification that we’ve grown so accustomed to? Dispo uses the narrative of a disposable camera to sell the story that we’ve collectively forgotten to live in the moment and its time to unravel together. The social aspect of the app is what ultimately motivates users to stick through the experience. With Rolls, users can collaborate on public albums in anticipation of the communal experience that Dobrik is trying to create.

The throwback vibe of disposable cameras is also very much a part of Dispo’s brand. Matt Klein, Director of Cultural Strategy at sparks & honey attributes Dispo’s popularity partly to nostalgia. “When uncertainty hits, we crave the security and comfort of nostalgia — the grainy warmth of pre-pandemic times. But while Hipstamatic and Instagram’s filters have always offered a toasty film-stock tinge, Dispo’s warmth is unique to Millennials and Gen Z who grew up with Kodak disposable cameras, not Polaroid, ” writes Klein.

Nostalgia is a vehicle for taking consumers into a past through rose-tinted glasses which portray the past as rosier than it probably was. When a brand invokes nostalgia, it can take consumers to their perception of happier times. Research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that nostalgia is not simply a past-orientated emotion but its scope extends into the future, with a positive outlook. In one of the reported studies within the paper, researchers found that when asked to write about a nostalgic event the number of optimistic words included in the narrative was higher compared to a control group who were asked to recall and write about an ordinary event. The study concluded that nostalgia has the capacity to facilitate perceptions of a more positive future.

It is also possible to be nostalgic for things that you didn’t experience. In his ‘Dictionary of Obscure SorrowsJohn Koenig defines neologisms for emotions that do not have a descriptive term. He coined the word anemoia as “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known”. The abundance of nostalgic vibes among Gen Z’s is a testament to this sentiment. Butterfly clips, velour sweatsuits, and tinted sunglasses are taking over TikTok. The cover artwork of Dua Lipa’s 2020 album Future Nostalgia, featured the Gen Z icon in a Googie-esque retro vehicle, one that could be seen in the Pulp Fiction 1950s-themed restaurant scene. Dua Lipa’s music video Levitating is full of retro vibes.

While millennials seek nostalgia as a route to escapism, Gen Z is in love with the aesthetic. Dispo, however, uses nostalgia as a hook rather than a window into the past. From an application design perspective, Dispo wraps nostalgia around framing available choices or choice architecture — the idea of using design to affect the decisions that users make. The choice with Dispo is having no choice at all. As Matt Klein writes, “the entire app is a filter. The work is just behind the curtain.”

On Dispo users neither feel the expectation nor the burden to present a manufactured façade because there are no available features to enhance the memory of the moment. Janine Sickmeyer narrates that “the best part about Dispo is everything they left out. There are no filters, no editing tools, no captions, no camera uploads, no memes, no quotes, no algorithms for vanity metrics, and no ability to import contacts from other social media accounts. Everyone starts at the same place: zero.”

The term choice-architecture was originally coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. For example, the way an IKEA store is designed, consumers are captive to a curated path within the store that evokes anticipation and fear of missing out if customers don’t follow along the entire way. Escape points, while available throughout the store, feel like short-circuiting a seamless experience, which consumers are reluctant to break. Similarly, the mobile payment app Square presents a “tipping” option by default, so customers must select “no tipping” if they prefer not to give a tip — a design that guilts customers into tipping.

The burden of constantly perfecting social media posts can incur a significant cognitive toll as James Surowiecki summarizes in his reflection about David Allen’ Getting Things Done. When there is always the option to tweak a social media post it can create a nagging, subconscious, infinite loop that causes low-level stress and anxiety. Dispo cuts this loop and rolls it out till 9AM the next day.

As we’re seeing with applications like Dispo and Clubhouse, the unstructured approach is refreshing because it’s our closest tryst with serendipity in a long time. While they don’t solve all of our social media woes, their popularity is testament to our shifting attitudes towards authenticity, and our ever-changing expectations from digital technologies. We will experience a further divide in our digital landscape between how we want others to see us vs how we see ourselves, as the battle between our outward and inward loci of influence goes on. For now we can use nostalgia as an escape to save us from ourselves.

I write about the psychological, emotional, and cultural factors that affect our decisions. Engineer | Brand Strategist | Curious

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