If you’ve been kind enough to read one or a few of these blog entries, you know I mostly use them to explore ideas new to me, that aren’t quite formed, and to claim some territory on them. This blog post is no different.
I am fascinated by the topic of social or collective memory. Sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’s (1877-1945) central insight that individual memory only has significance and meaning because we are members of social groups is important. Collective memory becomes even more interesting now that we live in the time of social media, surveillance, increasing automation, and ever-improving artificial intelligence. The objective of this essay is to outline some of the more interesting questions, areas for study, and ideas within this subject. It is not quite a proper, comprehensive review of the literature nor is establishing new theory. Rather it is meant as an introduction to the topic for a broader range of interested readers and as a way for me to establish some vocabulary, phrases, and jargon that I will most likely incorporate into future work.
Smartphones as Memory Machines
I often half-jokingly tell my students that their lives are defined by “mobile, smart phone-based social media apps that are built not for deep contemplation but rather for distracted, reactionary, and emotion-based behavior”. I’m being overly cynical with my students for a comedic effect, but in truth, what fascinates me about smart phone-based social media apps and our behavior within them is their duality. We all now understand that many of our posts are meant to be a sort of private / public hybrid. Private in the sense that it is distributed to our chosen social network where we might type a genuine thought or feeling. Public in that every post is a mini-mass broadcast not to one person but perhaps hundreds or thousands. Public also in that there is always the chance a larger network will see the message and it will be exchanged farther and farther out of our relatively small circle.
So, to use old terminology, these apps allow us to each become mini-broadcast stations, pumping out a message that may be meant to feel private or intimate but is always already public in a way. All of this technology is made possible in part due to the proliferation of, speed, and ease of use of databases that store, organize, and connect the various bits of data we choose to share. It is a wonderful storage system for our meaningful moments, ephemeral thoughts, and the miscellanea and minutiae of everyday life. These databases’ ability to connect all this data and our ability to search through this big data pile is all thanks to metadata (data about data). So, what we’re left with is a set of privately-owned social media apps that at the very least, are a set of databases, and at most, reach the level of personal, ongoing archive. What I also jokingly tell my students is that they shouldn’t call their smart phone a smart phone but rather a Memory Machine. So, let’s try to highlight some of the more interesting elements surrounding the idea of smart phone-based social media apps as our own personal Memory Machines.
Again, to reiterate from my introduction, I’m not presenting these as my own ideas. Rather they are a collection and synthesis of pre-existing scholarly ideas around issues of collective memory. Let’s begin with the basic idea that a social media app maintains an archive of your posts. By that very design choice, these interfaces are meant to be social. What I mean is, one cannot have an identity if one has no memories and one cannot have meaningful memories if one is not a part of a social group. So, in this way it would actually be weird if social media apps did not archive a record of your communicative interaction. The weirdness is of course that human memory tends to fade or at least gets hidden away within the brain over time. Unless a human being possesses some type of idiot savant abilities, humans rarely possess perfect recall. Ask a person who suffers from alcohol addiction or someone giving a statement to a police officer after a traffic accident about what exactly happened. Memory is tricky.
Not of course, within your favorite social media app. Don’t worry, I know what you’re probably thinking, “But that is a representation of the memory, not the memory itself”. Scholarship has shown (van Dijck, 2008) an interplay between pure organic memory and representations and records (e.g. photographs) of the moment. Especially as time goes on and memory does become fuzzy, we may come to rely more on the record or representation to at least trigger the memory if not eventually to become the memory itself. Let’s use an ideal type or perfect, extreme example to illustrate the effect of social media here.
Let’s say when I was 4 ½ years old, me and my older brother goofed around and draped beach blankets around ourselves, wore snorkel goggles and adorably stood over one another as some sort of cutesy snorkel/blanket monster. Prior to social media, I would have my sensory memory – what the wood floor felt like on my bare feet, the smell of the laundered blankets, whether my brother’s skin was hot or cold as I pushed my head back into his stomach. I may or may not also remember what was said or whether we said something funny. Also, most likely a photograph may have been taken. In this scenario we have sense memory, spoken language, and a single photographic record that I must put together in my mind in order to create the memory of the moment.
Again, I’m deliberately constructing ideal types (perfect models) here to contrast my examples and illustrate my points. Today, in the social media version, we have sense memory, we have most likely multiple photographs, a curated post possibly with photo editing and filters, and some type of written caption. Yes, when presented with the photograph, the social media user does the same memory reconstruction work as the pre-social media user. However, I would argue it is more likely they will interact with the memory by either choosing to look at, or being presented with, the original post with caption. If that’s the case, then the memory in a sense comes to them always already perfectly recorded, sealed, and delivered. Why do I say that the person is more likely to see the original post rather than the photograph? This leads me to my next two points.
There is an irony built into our memory machines and it is a simple one: We have the ability to record and store 1,000s of records but never look at them. This is due in part to just the sheer amount of data and ease with which we can collect it. Personally, I’ve been the proud parent / owner of two wonderful cats. I have also taken way more photographs of these two little fur balls over the years to honestly ever really look at them all or realistically use or enjoy them in a useful way. It is easy to record both in still and motion images, many of us are privileged to own or control large amounts of digital storage space, and the phone / camera is practically in my hand so much anyway, it almost becomes like a reflex. So, while I’m sure some people still enjoy creating, organizing, and curating their own personal digital photo albums, my guess is that many rely on the social media app as central gateway and curator to their digital archives.
This leads me to my second point. I mentioned above that since communication, identity, and memory are interdependent with one another, it actually isn’t weird that social media apps keep your posts as an archive. Yet, because the digital archive is much closer to perfect recall than human memory, it nonetheless gets us to the question: The tension between something that is meant to be for the present moment, and hence temporary versus something that is meant to be stored and recalled? The sort of dumbed-down, fear-based, now almost trite version of this question is when you hear some adult try to scare a high schooler or college student with the admonishment “Be careful what you post!” or “You should delete EVERYTHING before applying for jobs!” The better, more interesting thought is to ask what does it mean when our primary mode of socializing and connecting is a privately-owned, database-driven social media app that archives everything you choose to post.
This question has implications for the act of growing up or maturation. It also connects to a much larger topic within collective memory studies that deals with societal power: Who has the power to remember, and who has the power to forget? While rightfully reserved for larger issues regarding group or cultural identities, active challenge or appeasement on the part of countries, and individual, personal experiences of trauma, I feel it is useful to mention here. In one sense, Western culture artificially creates childhood as an idyllic time of exploration, growth, and experimentation where for the most part there are few repercussions. Yet, in the social media feed, there is potentially no differentiation – it is all just a line of thoughts and feelings that may be judged with equal weight regardless of age.
I would argue that prior to social media there was greater leeway between which thoughts and behaviors were meant to be temporary and ephemeral (e.g. phases we go through, personas we try on) and those that were significant (e.g. certain rituals or accomplishments). Simply by nature of the app design, this differentiation and its nuances are muted if not erased altogether. Yes, users have a choice to use the app and also make choices about what they feel to be worth posting. Yet, the desire to participate in the group or network is strong and so the potential for something meant to be a fleeting thought or brief emotional tantrum, now is archived right next to our greatest of accomplishments whether we really wanted it to be a memory or not. Or to put it more simply, the companies retain absolutely the power to remember and we lose the power to forget.
Student Responses (Power of, and Love for, Social Media by Young People. How They See It in Terms of Memory)
I’ve received some pretty insightful comments from students I’ve had in my Memory, Media, and Identity undergraduate course. I can’t extrapolate their impressions regarding social media and memory to every college-aged young person, or even whether they necessarily correlate to existing research. Yet, as a sample or pilot inquiry regarding how these younger brains see the connection between social media and memory, I find them useful. Some liken the perceived permanence of social media representation of collective memory to that of something more tangible like magazines. Others concur, reminding us it isn’t just a repository for their own lives but also “events outside our lives we’ve shared or reposted”. Though another rightly pointed out that while national holidays and commemorations are usually mentioned, users usually only post symbolic images rather than discussing or digging into the event’s greater significance or meaning.
A student made the obvious and direct comparison of social media acting as a “hard drive for our brains” and another said she uses Instagram as a memory machine when she’s feeling nostalgic. Another was even more direct regarding both her love of social media and the nostalgic utility it provides, “Social media is genuinely something very important to me and my feelings toward my childhood, and being able to capture the exact feeling of a movement is a priceless asset.”
However, another went much deeper regarding the routine of using social media, “So by posting and even texting about an event that has happened, your brain solidifies its feelings about a situation and will trigger those feelings and memories when you look back upon them.” Others note the potentiality for an echo effect that would help to establish the “accepted” collective memory via social media. Or another student focused simply on social media’s ability to replicate certain sensory information that aids in memory construction, “Pictures, videos, sounds from the event all make people on social media feel like they have a memory of it.” While a different student saw such memory functions as simply capitalistic, remarking that all platforms have some type of memory function in order to keep old posts “relevant to the user” and keep them on the platform.
Another connected the siloing of social media networks to memory. She wrote that it is far easier for a social media group or network to establish a collective memory when they are not a part of another group that may present a conflicting group memory. While a different student felt social media today is used less to meet new people as it is to reaffirm and strengthen existing group identities. So, for her, events have become even more personalized or exclusive, and when shared, simply shared amongst a very small group of people. This sentiment supports the previous about the ease of group memory in the age of online social networks.
Certain platforms had a very strong identity and purpose in some students’ minds. For example, one student wrote “twitter is really good at establishing cultural beliefs and shared knowledge. When something on twitter goes viral it becomes cemented in collective memory, whether that be a meme that people reference for years or a controversial tweet (usually political) that shapes the mass public perception of an issue.”
One student noted a specific example tied to the promotion of nostalgia, or from her perspective, the creation of nostalgia. She mentions social media nostalgia trends that bring back childhood objects she either forgot about or hadn’t originally experienced. She felt that ultimately, “Bringing these memories back plays such a monumental role in how we refer to our childhood and the nostalgia it brings.”
Many of the most common social media apps act as memory machines in several ways. In many cases, social media is personal to the user and what they post and view on their platform is directly related to them and their life (Instagram and Facebook for example). This creates a time capsule, in a way, for the user to reflect on moments from their own life and their peers’ lives that were particularly notable to them. These moments, on most platforms, are seen in conjunction with the specific date and sometimes the time that the moment was posted. This makes it easy to take a look at the past from a distance and view trends or patterns that may resurface other memories related to them. Not only is social media a ‘memory machine’ for personal use, but some social media apps are best suited to support memory of larger groups of people, such as groups based on geography or distinct interest (Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok for example). Similarly to more personal social media, each post is linked to a specific date (and time) that the moment was posted, and provides tangible evidence of particular trends, mannerisms, or events that were going on at a certain point in our recent history. All it takes is a quick search of a certain event and thousands of results will appear, showing the user what memories are associated with specific words, phrases, and time periods. It should be noted though, there is no guarantee the results automatically equate with a depth or richness of memory. The search results may just bring back multiple copies of the same image or signifier (think of a common 9/11 remembrance image) that is an easy stand-in for the deeper feelings. This would connect to my student’s comment regarding postings that are only symbolic representations that provide cover for the user’s rawer feelings they choose not to include in their posts.
Automation of Memory
What is fascinating to me regarding the potentiality of database-driven memory machines is the different ways automation begins to play a role. The first example is when an app such as Facebook shows you memories when you open the app or the ritual of Throwback Thursdays. I’ve always connected to simple but powerful function to Rutgers Sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel’s (1981) insight about the power calendars played in constructing communities and nations. Simply stated, when you can change a “regular” Tuesday into a sacred or holy day, or one that holds power for communities that is tied to their secular identities, then you are having an effect on how individuals think. At its base level, it reinforces the group identity or affinity toward the group itself. Once ritualized, it becomes habit. In a bit more obvious way, this is what the habit of Facebook memories also performs. So, now what was a “regular” Saturday now turns into (3 min. after waking up and looking at Facebook) “7 years ago, ON THIS DAY, this cute or emotional or honestly, very ordinary, event HAPPENED”. It is possible that like a majority of social media content, this recognition will quickly pass through my brain and be forgotten. However, there remains a potentiality for altering an individual’s orientation toward the day based on what Facebook shows you.
The next example of automation is the use of small automatic cameras that don’t require you to be present to activate them. Here is the basic scenario I always present to my students. Let’s say generic mother X buys one of these automatic small cameras and places it on the bookshelf in her toddler’s room. She sets it to record when the baby moves (crawls on floor or sits and plays with her blocks). Mom goes off to work and the nanny or babysitter or spouse is home with the child. A few hours later, while still at work, Mom receives a set of photographs or video footage the camera automatically captured, recorded, sent to her phone, and the phone has organized and readied for presentation. Mom, during her hurried lunch break smiles warmly as she watches her child spell something out for the first time with her wooden blocks. In the immediate moment, Mom thinks some variation of the thought, “I’m glad I didn’t totally miss this moment.” Now, we fast forward some three to six years and on a rare day off, Mom uses some time to curate her digital scrapbook. She reaches the day with blocks and smiles warmly again at this memory, which by now, may stand alone or become intermeshed with playing with the child after she got home from work. At best, it is a mashed-up or hybrid memory of time Mom was and was not present. More likely, time will erode some of that distinction – that Mom wasn’t actually present for the blocks – but it won’t really matter because it will sit alongside her other cherished “memories”. If after reading this scenario, you’ve had a kneejerk reaction along the lines of “that is not a REAL memory”, recent nostalgia theory shows the “real” is a bit more malleable than most of us are comfortable accepting. De Brigard (2020) theorizes nostalgia’s cognitive component not necessarily as a memory, but rather more broadly, as a kind of imagination that triggers positive feelings. While a few different studies over the years (Scoboria et al., 2017) have shown how our minds are able to create memories just from exposure to various photographs, stories, and anecdotes repeated enough in order for it to sew them together into a perceived memory. We even have now shown how such “false” memories can be reversed (Oeberst et al., 2021). So, the most extreme, nihilistic scenario is not one I personally subscribe to but can imagine. It is about a curated automated content field that learns what we most likely react to with our attention and provides more of it to us. We already are living that part. The next is to lose one’s self in these content worlds so strongly that the line between personal and fan connections become blurred. The line between distanced fan, close witness, and first-hand experience become blurred. The automation reminding us of content from all three of these types blurs it further until the point becomes that memory is transformed into something else, perhaps De Brigard’s form of imagination.
If I’m being honest, the impetus for this essay’s title came about seven years ago when I was still a doctoral candidate teaching undergraduate students. The specifics of that class’s lesson or curriculum escapes me now, but I must have been discussing with the students the intertwining of identity, social media, and memory. I do remember I was laying out this connection really thick in order to promote discussion among some recalcitrant (or maybe just tired) undergraduates. Then one student raised his hand and honestly said much more than the following, but what burned into my brain was this statement, “Yeah, ok professor but it’s not like we’re building pyramids to ourselves.” Obviously, immediately, I thought to myself, “That’s it! That is the phrase for what we are doing. Creating an archive to ourselves, complete with all the major events and daily, supposedly ephemeral minutiae.” Yet, as the section on automation complicates our understanding of just what memory is, we might also say to that student, “So yes, we’re building pyramids to ourselves, but like Egypt’s slaves, today’s automation is doing the work for us. So, in a sense, the digital pyramid will stand, but it might end up being quite hollow.”
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