Consumer fascination with the past drives a diverse range of markets. Genetic ancestry, antique collecting, heritage tourism, and historical re-enactments are just a few examples of market-mediated efforts to memorialize the past. Typically, the past is made consumable by professionals, such as brand managers, tourism agents, and heritage boards. However, what happens when consumers are the drivers of memorialization? What are the consequences of prioritizing consumer interpretations over commercial interpretations of the past? We asked the co-authors of a new JCR paper focusing on consumer-driven memorialization, Stephanie Anderson and Kathy Hamilton.
In answering these questions, we examine the subculture of urban exploration. Urban explorers photograph and explore abandoned buildings such as residential properties, hospitals, or factories, to draw attention to overlooked memories. These sites are unregulated by market and other institutional actors (such as historians) due to a perceived lack of sociocultural significance. However, urban explorers view these buildings and their contents as important traces of the past that are deserving of memorialization.
We draw on the experiences of urban explorers to introduce our concept of consumer-driven memorialization. Consumers play four roles whilst memorializing the past. Explorers experience the past, archaeologists materialize the past, artists aestheticize the past, and historians narrate the past. Together these roles enable consumers to recover traces of the past but also create new traces for the future. This is because consumers not only consume history but can become empowered, during their consumption, to author history by producing photographs and stories.
In memorializing the past, consumers employ norms and practices that deviate considerably from professionals. This results in a complex dynamic between remembering and forgetting. On the one hand, consumer-driven memorialization supports remembrance by drawing attention to overlooked memories and raising questions concerning what histories are considered worthy of remembrance and which are not. On the other hand, consumer-driven memorialization supports forgetting because consumer outputs may unintentionally create fiction. These outputs are often grounded in imagination and prioritize goals of self-expression that skew representations of the past. Such blurring of fact and fiction has the capacity to depoliticize and aestheticize the past as new fictious narratives may shape future interpretations that contribute to collective forgetting.
Consumer communities, such as urban explorers, may promote contested interpretations of the past that enter public consumption. This is enhanced by the medium of dissemination as the internet and social media enable a collective authorship. The absence of regulation in consumer-driven memorialization promotes a fragmented approach. This results in conflicting memorializations as it places no limits on the interpretive scope of consumers and equally creates no consensus on their interpretations of the past.
It is therefore important to approach consumer-driven memorializations with caution and critique. Reflecting on the traces you personally leave behind: how you would feel if they were reimagined by others in years to come? Outputs of memorialization are often generated with a consuming audience in mind, meaning that attention to aesthetic and narrative appreciation often supersedes factual accuracy. In extreme cases, memorializations may have the capacity to promote harmful representations.
In sum, forgetting is inevitable when consumers, as non-professionals, make the past consumable. The roles enacted during consumer-driven memorialization are epistemologically valuable but can lead to the erasure or blurring of pressing socio-cultural and political concerns.
Read the full paper here:
Stephanie Anderson and Kathy Hamilton
Journal of Consumer Research, ucad025, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcr/ucad025