I’m a casual Facebook user. I have a profile, I’ve got friends, I occasionally check in. I rarely post anything other than links to this blog (shameless self-promotion), I don’t post status updates, I haven’t uploaded a picture in over a year. Clearly, I’m not heavily invested and I’ve posted more than a few critical remarks about Facebook’s hegemony and its consequences on this blog. But recently I’ve been thinking about Facebook in relationship to memory, memory being a recurring theme of late.
For example, in light of the research article I summarized yesterday, “Is Memory in the Brain? Remembering as Social Behavior”, one could view Facebook as a form of social remembering. Rather than reminiscing in person, we have asynchronous reminiscences with friends, past and present, often centered on posted photographs. We might even view tagging photos as a kind of social remembering, a collective curating of shared memories. Often a very old photograph will be posted by one of a circle of friends, the other friends will be tagged, and a round of reminiscing will follow on the comments.
One other analogy that I’ve been toying with is Facebook as memory theater. I’ve mentioned memory theaters in at least a couple of past posts (here and here), the basic idea is that one constructs an imagined space in the mind (similar to the work of the Architect in the film Inception, only you’re awake) and then populates the space with images that stand in for certain ideas, people, words, or whatever else you want to remember. The theory is that we remember images and places better than we do abstract ideas or concepts. During the Renaissance these mental constructs were sometimes externalized in built structures that housed all sorts of artifacts visually representing the store of human knowledge.
Perhaps it is a stretch, but Facebook seems to function in some respects as kind of externalized memory theater. Instead of storing speeches or knowledge of the world, it is used to store autobiographical memory. The architecture of the application is the constructed space and profiles are like images kept in the places, each profile carrying with it by association a trove of particular memories. Most people report as one of the joys of Facebook the reconnection with an old friend from childhood. While certainly some of these reconnections lead into renewed and sustained contact, most I imagine do not. We exchange a message or two, we look over their life as it is now, and then we don’t really keep in touch any better than we used to. But the memories have been activated, and now their profile takes its place in our memory theater, happily recalling those same memories whenever we like. The profile is not the friend, of course; it simply becomes a placeholder for particular set of memories.
Facebook taps in to more than one aspect of our psychology. I have often explained its appeal as a function of our desire to be noticed, to receive attention; and surely this is part of the mix. Lately Facebook’s role in the political sphere has been receiving a good deal of attention. But it may be that its trade in our memories gives Facebook its uncanny persistence. Increasingly we hear people taking issue with Facebook’s privacy protocols or otherwise complaining about the pressures of always on social media. Not too long ago, I noted the grumblings over Facebook’s bid to become the ambient background of the Internet and Zuckerber’s disingenuous push for online “integrity.” Recent studies have also drawn attention to the potentially negative effect of Facebook on psychological well-being, particularly for women. But for all of this most people struggle to kill their accounts permanently. Like a bad high school romance, we break up with Facebook, only to flirt and make up, and then break up again.
This begins to make sense when we realize that Facebook has become a prosthetic of our memory. But not just a prosthetic of memory in general, a simple list on a scrap of paper is that much; it is a prosthetic of our autobiographical memory. It’s a part of our identity, and it is very difficult to kill off a part of one’s self.
One last thought, only a suggestive one at that: it is one thing to artificially condition one’s memory to store up vast amounts of information about the world or large chunks of poetry, it is quite another to artificially store up one’s autobiographical memory. Our technology has made the storage of memory cheap and easy, but there is something to be said for forgetting. The artificial extension of autobiographical memory involves us in some of the more complex regions of human psychology and personality. We enter into the realm of mourning, catharsis, obsession, fantasy, and more. We might consider as well that healing and forgetting very often go hand in hand. In any case, we have a good deal to contemplate.
“They tell, and here is the enigma, that those consulting the oracle of Trophonios in Boetia found there two springs and were supposed to drink from each, from the spring of memory and from the spring of forgetting.” Jacques Derrida (Memoires for Paul de Man)
If this post was of interest, you may also want to consider Social Media and the Arts of Memory.