A new study which is the first to look at social media’s effect on memory suggests that posting personal experiences on social media makes those events much easier to remember.
Qi Wang, the lead author of the study and professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology said, “If people want to remember personal experiences, the best way is to put them online.” He also said that, “Social media — blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and others alike — provide an important outlet for us to recall memories, in the public space, and share with other people.”
Researchers on memory have long known that when people write about personal experiences, talk about them with others or even reflect on them, they tend to remember those events better. According to the study, “The process of writing about one’s experiences in the public sphere, often sustained by subsequent social feedback, may allow people to reflect on the experiences and their personal relevance.”
Wang who is an expert in personal memory stated that posting on social media also plays a role in constructing oneself.
“We create a sense of self in the process of recalling, evaluating and sharing with others, memories of personal experiences in our lives,” Wang said. “That’s happening when we use social media, without us even noticing it. We just think, ‘Oh, I’m sharing my experience with my friends.’ But by shaping the way we remember our experiences, it’s also shaping who we are.”
An example of helping remember past events is Facebook. It periodically shows its users photos and posts from previous years to remind them of those events which triggers the users to revisit those experiences.
“Memory is often selective. But in this case, the selection is not done by our own mind; it’s done by an outside resource,” Wang said. “So interactive functions on social networking sites can also shape how we view our experiences, how we view ourselves.”
Wang alongside her co-authors, Dasom Lee ’13, and Yubo Hou of Peking University, asked 66 undergraduates from Cornell to keep a daily diary for a week. The 66 participants described briefly the events that happened to them each day excluding daily routines (eg had lunch) and for every event, they recorded whether they posted the event on social media or not. They then rated the personal importance and emotional intensity of the event on five-point scales. At the end of the week and a week later, the participants took a surprise quiz about their events and how much they remembered.
What the researchers found out was that the online status of each event really predicted the likelihood of it being recalled at the end of both the first and second weeks. In other words, events that are posted on social network are more likely to be remembered than those that are not posted online regardless of the nature of the event.
The research adds new light on memory theories and has an important implication for the construction of a person’s autobiography in the digital age. The research, “Externalizing the autobiographical self: sharing personal memories online facilitated memory retention,” appeared in a recent edition of the journal, Memory.