Reclaiming tangibility: the rediscovery of physical media

Patrick Shannon

Patrick Shannon

August 9, 2017

I often catch flack for still being a patron of the local video store. I’ve heard my share of mockery such as “Those are still around?” and “Have you heard of Netflix / iTunes / Vudu?”

Not that I’m ignorant of modern options…there’s no better way than streaming to binge on TV shows and original content. But to me, movies on these services are a crapshoot filled with old titles I’ve already seen, delayed new releases and constantly have distribution and fragmentation problems with content. As for a la carte options, single new release rentals on iTunes cost much more than the local stores. And don’t get me started on the DVD kiosks…aside from a paltry selection and slow interface, it’s no fun being stuck behind that one person who can’t make up their damned mind.

Perhaps my appreciation for video stores is a bit nostalgic, and as I’ve said before, nostalgia can be dangerous in business. But more than anything, I think that I still desire a tangible experience. From getting out of my house into the world, browsing the video store aisles and interacting with the movie boxes in my hands, it harkens back to a time before on-demand entertainment where the effort was much more gratifying than mindlessly hitting “next” on a remote control.

This article is not about arguing about movie options or a plea to support local businesses. What I want to highlight is what we really lost in the rise of the digital age: something that transcends obsolescence no matter what format it comes on. And I think there is a growing movement towards reclaiming that.

The death and rebirth of old media

Back to video stores for a second…ask most people how Blockbuster Video failed and you’ll commonly hear answers like Netflix and Redbox. While those options certainly transformed the industry, Blockbuster did as much to doom itself as anyone through bad business decisions, too many locations and lousy reputation (especially with late fees). While there are those who miss them, I honestly don’t think most customers had affection or loyalty for them when other options came about.

Proof that Blockbuster didn’t have to fail lies with one movie chain that is still doing reasonably well. Unlike Blockbuster, Family Video has survived through smart business decisions involving real estate, strategic locations, staff hiring and a diverse business portfolio (eggs not solely in the video rental basket). Most of all, they understand and cater directly to those who aren’t on board with the modern options and appreciate the environment, community and family aspects. (I doubt iTunes or Vudu hand out free rentals for good report cards.)

Let’s look at other types of media. You always hear about vinyl’s resurgence (some claim it never went away) and proponents cite everything from the sound, the texture to even the classic cracking and hissing. To them, you’re not just starting an album or playlist when you’re putting down the needle on The Dark Side of the Moon…you’re getting ready for an experience.

Left for dead in the face of digital cameras and cell phones, film photography has also been making a shocking comeback. Brands like Ektachrome and Polaroid are being brought back to life, film courses at some institutions boast large waiting lists, and instant cameras are particularly gaining popularity with youth. (Watching instant camera film develop in your hand is no less magical than it was many years ago.)

Few items demonstrate more tangible connection than a book. Despite the luxuries and benefits of electronic book readers like the Kindle, I can’t count how many people I’ve heard say they still prefer the feeling of a paper book in their hands. (In a twist, Amazon is even experimenting with physical brick-and-mortar bookstores.)

What is going on here? Many are quick to blame the renewed interest in physical media on “hipster culture” going through a phase right now, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that.

We’re so saturated with digital media today that it’s diminished the value we previously placed into it’s physical counterparts. The pride of displaying home movie collections is lost on streaming services, we have 30+ million song collections for a measly Hamilton a month and we scoff if we have to pay any more than 99 cents for a phone app. When something is perceived as too passive and easy, we tend to place less value in it.

What I think is driving this new renaissance in physical media is rediscovering the intimacy of these experiences that we traded away for convenience, being able to hold something in our hands once again that defines us. For many born during this period, they are discovering these things for the very first time in their lives.

Rethinking and reinventing former experiences

I think renewed potential in these areas – however niche – is one reason why Amazon is flirting with physical stores to augment their reach beyond e-commerce. But for those who aren’t multinational commerce companies, commercially operating with past business models as they were is a foolish proposition. Perhaps the fall of media and physical stores is not necessarily because of the format or model, but rather that they failed to identify that the role they play in people’s lives is ever-changing.

New approaches can be had from old ideas. While a number of video stores still rent movies, more of them (especially in New York) have been becoming community hubs, movie bars or film noir cinema houses featuring cult films and foreign movies not found on the streaming services. Even larger chains like Family Video are experimenting with it’s real estate by pairing with Marco’s Pizza chains that will deliver movies along with your pizza.

Not that it wasn’t before, but I think film photography is further reclassifying itself as an artistic medium. More challenging to shoot, there is pride and wonder in successfully exposing and processing your own film that is missing from digital culling and RAW file editing. As interest in photography continues to grow due to the rise of digital photography, there too is also a growing portion looking to diversify from the masses and flirt once again with film.

Some brick and mortar music stores have the ability to transcend being a mere retail location and become community destinations. I think Vintage Vinyl here in St. Louis is a beautiful example that perfectly captures the experience of browsing on a Sunday afternoon to discover that rare gem, as well as being valuable to the local music community and a virtual landmark on the Delmar Loop. While a Slackers could close without much fanfare, I think locals would be very upset if Vintage Vinyl were to do the same.

While video arcades in America went nearly extinct, arcade bars is a modern spin on a dated concept that combine the nostalgia of game cabinets with the social aspect of bars and clubs. Some arcade bars take it one step further and combine their efforts with a brewery like Two Plumbers Brewery + Arcade. While home game consoles shut people inside, arcade bars look to bring them back out into the world.

Tangibility: the enduring business model

All this isn’t to suggest that there will be a mass exodus towards these areas once again: digital media has completely transformed entertainment and industry workflows and they’re here to stay.

But as our dependence on digital grows, I think there will also be an equally growing demand for experiences that can’t be delivered over bits, bytes and algorithms. Our desire for tangible fulfillment and connection is one model that will never become obsolete.

This also presents a new challenge for those of us who make our career in digital, and we should be asking ourselves the following question: how can we bolster the value and further improve the emotional connection in our interactive work?

About Patrick Shannon

As a user experience (UX) designer / researcher based in St. Louis, I've worked with technology partners across the country to study end-users and create fictionless products and solutions that today's audiences connect with. In my spare time, I enjoy photography and building ideas out of anything from electronics to wood...still determined to build a life-sized replica of Optimus Prime someday.