Decoding next: Five trends you need to know including social media burnout, vintage tech and the rise in empathy

By Barbara Herman | senior writer

December 10, 2015 | 10 min read

Sparks & Honey tracks cultural trends by drawing on dozens of data sources, hundreds of scouts and cultural strategists in our New York and Los Angeles offices.

In November, we covered hundreds of signals and featured the best daily in our app N2 (now, next). Here are the hottest trends from our app curated exclusively for The Drum.

1. Social media burnout

Social media is a great way to stay on top of the news, whether it’s what your friends are up to on Facebook, what’s going on in the world on Twitter, or where the influencers in your circle went out last night on Instagram. But what happens when FOMO (fear of missing out) culture turns into social media overload? That’s right: burnout city. Here are just some signs we saw over the past month that we’re moving into JOMO (joy of missing out).

Denmark-based think tank Happiness Research Institute gathered 1095 volunteers, 94 per cent of whom said they visited Facebook daily and told half of them to use it normally and the other half to take a break. Not surprisingly, 88 per cent who quit said they felt happy — more enthusiastic, decisive, less worried. They spent more time with friends and family in real life, too. This is compared to 81 per cent who kept using it who reported being happy. The Institute’s advice? Just quit. Or take a break.

One social media influencer, 17-year-old Instagram bikini model Essena O’Neill with thousands of followers, did try to quit, and ended up proving how insidious being addicted to feedback can be. After her announcement that “social media is not real life” received a backlash, she continued to spar with detractors. Like O'Neill, there are many out there who don't know how to do anything off social media — including quitting it.

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Snapchat's popular 'Stories' feature, which allows you to post photos or videos that everyone who is on your contacts can see, is triggering FOMO in teens big time. Its original social media angle was that you could send a silly private picture to an individual or group on your list, and it would disappear in 10 seconds. Stories images last for 24 hours, and they're meant for everyone to see, including people who aren't at the fun party you're documenting instead of enjoying.

2. I feel your pain

Empathy distinguishes itself from sympathy or pity because of its immersive quality: to empathize with someone, you see things from their perspective to feel the emotions they do. Below are some cultural signs that technologies, games and jobs are honing in on empathy as a value.

The New York Times has made the empathy-inducing powers of photojournalism even more powerful with its Virtual Reality journalism initiative. It sent out free co-branded Google Cardboard viewers to certain home delivery subscribers, allowing them to watch, among other VR films, 'The Displaced', a film about the way that war alters children's lives, via its VR app. Some experiences resist telling, and require immersive showing.

They say you need to walk in someone's shoes to understand them, and the subculture of LARPers — Live Action Role Players — is doing just that. In addition to role-playing for fun, they're also putting themselves in the place of the most vulnerable in society: refugees, prisoners, and the homeless. Many LARPers say that they’re finding new ways to tackle artistic, personal and even political answers to problems through empathizing with the plight of others.

63-year-old Nina Keneally found that millennials in her yoga class seemed to constantly seek out her empathy, wisdom and advice. So she decided to monetize it by starting Need A Mom, a $40 an hour service that gives her 20-something customers in the Bushwick neighborhood of New York City "mom help and mom advice" but without having to actually tell real Mom (or perhaps a too-clinical therapist) what they're up to. Keneally said that although the New York she lived in when she was 20 is very different than the one her clients live in, she’s walked enough in their shoes to be able to empathize with them and impart her wisdom.

3. Vintage tech

When we think of product nostalgia, our thoughts usually turn to old toys, antique cars or vintage fashions, but we usually want our tech new and improved. We’ve been seeing signs that people are missing vintage technology, however, often because of some design feature that seemed (in retrospect) quirkier, more awkward or “warmer” compared to today’s tech.

Just after the internet went wild when Adele dramatically closed her flip phone in her video "Hello,” Samsung announced it was releasing a high-end flip phone version of the Galaxy S6. Is it pure nostalgia for old phones? Or maybe it’s the satisfying 'click' of ending a conversation by snapping the flip phone shut. Some miss that extrasensory flourish that truly says 'goodbye' in a world where people are glued to their phones 24/7.

The Nintendo Entertainment System in 1983 gave us classic games like Super Mario Brothers and Kung-Fu, but we’ve moved on to bigger and better 3D graphics, interactivity and even virtual reality gaming. So no one would have a need for the NES, right? In fact, a company called Analogue wagered that people would even be up for a $500 luxury Nintendo system they call Analogue Nt, an aluminum-clad gaming system that plays original NES and Famicom cartridges. There are even breathless unboxing videos of the Analogue Nt on YouTube.

For Brian Chilcutt, who curates the online Museum of Endangered Sounds, no obsolete tech sound should be left behind. The sounds of AOL instant messenger, the Nokia flip phone’s signature ring and Gameboy’s Tetris bleeps are music to his ears. So he’s preserved the sounds made famous by his favorite old technologies and electronics equipment. He even has a 10-year plan: to complete his collection phase by the end of this year, and to spend the next seven years reinterpreting the sounds as a binary composition. Why? Because he doesn’t want to live in a world without the “symphonic startup of a Windows 95 machine”.

4. Dietary guidelines free-for-all: It’s what’s for dinner

What’s good for you and what tastes good seems to be a big tension in the food space.

Innova Market Insights released its Top Ten Trends in food list for 2016, and among the usual suspects of additive-free, gluten-free, and naturally-processed foods was the rise of the Flexitarian. These Flexitarians, or part-time vegetarians, are concerned about sustainability, animal welfare, and their own cholesterol levels. But dammit — they still want to eat some meat. It’s all about balance.

New York City is now requiring that chain restaurants and concession stands add the symbol of a salt shaker next to menu items that have more than the recommended 2.3 g of sodium, which can contribute to heart disease if eaten in excess. Awareness that yet another delicious thing (well, a thing that makes other things more delicious) is not good for you is certainly no fun. So we will see more products and recipes using ingredients that promise to boost flavor — a big buzzword this year — without salt, in an effort to achieve not only health but pleasure.

Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, started the Culinary Breeding Network, which brings chefs, plant breeders, and farmers together to create more flavorful veggies and fruits. It's been theorized that Americans eat so much junk food because the flavor has been bred out of fruits and vegetables to keep them uniform in look and fresher, longer. These foods may be good for us, but if produce we buy in the grocery store is insipid, no wonder people reach for the chemically engineered deliciousness of a nacho cheese-flavored potato chip.

5. Float, drink and gaze your way to a stress-free life

Stress doesn’t just make you feel emotionally bad, it can also be bad for your physical health. Alternative therapies promise to help without the kinds of side effects of meds.

New research has shown that floating in salt water tanks might be a shortcut for the stressed out to achieve the state of calm similar to those who meditate or who take anti-anxiety meds. Many still model themselves after the sensory deprivation tanks of yore, but the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma has a float tank with no enclosure to make the experience relaxing rather than claustrophobic.

REBBL, an acronym for roots, extracts, berries, bark and leaves, is a Berkeley-based functional drink company that promises something new in the drink market space: to help people combat stress. Its primary ingredients are adaptogenic super-herbs that are supposed to help people adapt. One such super-herb is Ashwagandha, whose berries, roots and leaves have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries and touted as helping to support stress, cognitive function, sleep, metabolic wellness, and even sports performance.

Everyone knows that being in nature can help lower your stress levels. But what if you’re in a windowless room or one dominated by fluorescent lighting? Apparently, even seeing fake scenes of nature can stimulate these positive effects, and Simar Designs' 'fake window' seeks to recreate that warm and fuzzy feeling. Using LED panels that project realistic scenes of nature, including skylights, into a room, Simar lets you switch out one image for another. It’s a perfect example of what we call wellness design: products, spaces and experiences designed for physical or mental well-being and health.

Barbara Herman is senior writer at Sparks & Honey


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