21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Social Media Memory

Courtney Hopf


As an academic field, ‘memory studies’ has been around for almost a century – Maurice Halbwachs first coined the term ‘collective memory’ in 1925 – but it was in the late twentieth century that the study of collective and cultural memory really began to attract critical attention. Nicola King suggests that this interest arose as the generations that experienced two world wars began to die out, and a desire to preserve and reconstruct those experiences came to the fore (11). Indeed, the terms ‘cultural’ and ‘collective’ memory are often employed specifically as prisms through which to comprehend the shared trauma of survivors, be that trauma war, genocide, or childhood abuse.[1] In the twenty-first century, alternatively, memory studies has turned much of its focus to media, and is invested in how the very process of mediation affects how collective memory is formed (Neiger et al, van Dijck).

An underlying assumption of much memory theory, though, is that individual or personal memory is distinct from cultural or collective memory.  In this article I would like to propose that the socially-mediated identities of the twenty-first century preclude the possibility of such a distinction. Instead, I argue that the curation of identity undertaken by users of digital social media is itself a process of pre-emptive memory-creation. Such activities are undertaken with a knowledge of the speed and transferable nature of digital media – even if a user deletes a blog post or personal video, there is no guarantee it has not already been copied and distributed by someone else. As a result, memory is determined by the digital artifacts shared amongst a network of people, and which artifacts are chosen for display in the first place is determined by a desire to exhibit a particular identity to that network.


Should memory studies turn from physical memory objects such as photographs, diaries and videos to digital memory objects? [Image by Philip Bitnar under a CC-BY license]


Almost synchronously with the rise of memory studies, the ‘narrative turn’ has brought storytelling to the forefront of conceptions of identity formation. Having begun in the latter half of the twentieth century as a theory with purely linguistic applications, narratology has grown to touch nearly every discipline, most recently taking hold in fields like business and cognitive psychology. How is memory different from storytelling? The two concepts are often used interchangeably, especially with regard to the formation of social, cultural and historical identity. It is generally agreed that identity is constructed through a process of narration, and both memory and storytelling are narratives, in that both are constructions of causal events. Yet, where memory studies were and are a means of understanding cultural and historical identity, narrative can be trans- or non-national, invoked as a way of accessing a discursively-constructed, international identity enabled by digital and social media (Page 16-20). Where memory studies defined memory as either cultural/historical or personal/individual – narrative identity is both individual and collective, comprised of both personal and shared experience. The question, then, is: what are the stories we are telling about ourselves, in an era when we can simultaneously construct those stories for posterity?

José van Dijck argues convincingly that this is a circular operation without an origin – there is no pure memory that is later mediated by external processes. Instead, ‘media and memory transform each other’ (21). ‘Mediated memories,’ for van Dijck, are ‘both acts of memory (construing a relational identity etched in dimensions of time) and…memory products (personal memory objects as sites where individual minds and collective cultures meet)’ (22). Van Dijck’s emphasis lies with physical memory objects like photographs, recordings, diaries and videos. Though she addresses digital memory objects, at her time of publication (2007, and thus just before the release of the first iPhone) she could only speculate (rightly) about the context of media sharing that was to shortly become so fundamental and prolific in online interaction. However, she underscores her argument with the point that memory objects are ‘not static objects or repositories but dynamic relationships that evolve along two axes: a horizontal axis expressing relational identity and a vertical axis articulating time’ (21). By considering such objects as part of the shared digital environment of social media, these axes are both extended – perhaps indefinitely.



How do we "curate" our digital selves? Literary scholarship needs to address what is already being discussed in media theory [Image by Sergio Bertolini under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


These axes of time and relational identity are evidenced through the ways in which users are ‘curating’ their digital selves online. Though it has not yet been addressed in academic literature, the concept of identity curation has already taken hold in media circles. Jeremy Garner cites all aspects of our digital identity (from avatar images to emails to Facebook ‘likes’) as part of our curated selves; they are all carefully selected elements that help us to determine the version of our identity that others will see. In a similar vein, Bernie Hogan has distinguished between what he sees as ‘performances’ of the self online versus ‘exhibitions.’  He argues that the digital artifacts uploaded to sites like YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are exhibitions, in that they are not tethered to a specific, time-bound situation. Performances, Hogan states, are only relevant in the time and space of their first occurrence – once they are recorded, uploaded, and shared, they become exhibitions. ‘The world is not only a stage,’ he quips, ‘but also a library and a gallery’ (377).

Is our curated gallery of identity, then, opening us up to greater possibility and multiple ‘versions’ of our ourselves, or is it flattening us, paradoxically, into human avatars?  Van Dijck states that:

Computers are bound to obliterate even the illusion of fixity: a collection of digital data is capable of being reworked to yield endless potentialities of a past…Personal memories, at the moment of inscription, are prone to wishful thinking, just as memories upon retrieval are vulnerable to reconsolidation.  Imagination and memory, in the age of digital technologies, may become even closer relatives (47). 

On the one hand, van Dijck is right – various camera apps allow instantaneous retouching, editing and uploading, allowing users to perfect their constructed memories before sharing them, thus instantiating idealized memory from nearly the moment of creation. On the other hand, though van Dijck acknowledges that the ease of sharing in computer networks would become a factor, in 2007 she had not encountered the sheer scope of these practices. Thus, though new media memory is likely always idealized and constructed memory, in practice it has done quite the opposite of obliterating ‘the illusion of fixity’. As Garner notes, ‘in many ways, the curated self is far more nailed down than the real one. You can’t say, “It wasn’t me, guvnor, I was paying attention,” if your boss knows you’re in a meeting and you tweet “I’m bored beyond belief.”’ New media memory is always already shared memory, and therefore a careless facebook comment, a racist tweet, or a humiliating photo will likely be captured and shared onward, and hence preserved even if the poster chooses to later delete them.  I thus propose an evolution to van Dijck’s ‘memory objects’ with the concept of ‘social media memory.’ Both collective and individual, it is shared amongst networks that may not have any unifying cultural or political factors, and it is individual because it is a curation of individual identity.

Facebook’s ‘Timeline’ feature, for example, allows a user not just to scroll through their posts and events since the website’s inception, but also to work backwards through time and fill in experiences going back to the user’s birth. In this context, is the user’s Timeline itself the memory object, or is each digital element its own object, capable of arousing specific and individualised sense memories? Just as the purpose of the photographic medium has changed from documenting the past to sharing the present, Timeline introduces a new function – it is not just used for sharing the immediate now, but it is also inevitably employed to highlight the curated past. It thus enables users to create a coherent and idealized personal history, one that, perhaps, even indicates clear causality between events where once, in life, there was much greater incoherence and strife.


How can narrative theory help us to analyse the curation of coherent idealized personal histories online? [Image by Gideon Burton CC-BY-SA license]


In narrative theory we might call this kind of practice naturalization. Jonathan Culler coined the term in his Structuralist Poetics to explain how readers will try to make sense of the disparate elements of a narrative. He describes how readers will strive to integrate the strange or unfamiliar of a narrative into a larger frame of reference rather than reject it outright – a process of naturalizing. Since the material lies between the covers of a single book, the reader’s instinct is to make everything fit. Conversely, Facebook’s Timeline functions through streamlining and redaction. Rather than list every menial job in the hunt for a rewarding career, for example, we might only include those that directly contributed to elevated status. We might eliminate unhappy relationships or gloss over static periods. But these removals are themselves a kind of naturalization. Walter Benjamin noted that memory ‘is really the capacity for endless interpolations into what has been’ (cited in King, 4), but surely as daily experience becomes ever more recorded, curated and shared, the likelihood of such interpolations declines.

Given this link between narrative theory and social media memory, it is clear the concept could extend beyond the digital domain. As I have argued elsewhere,[2] literary narratives do not just convey stories but affect who we are as individuals, and if we consider reading an inherently social act, then surely all literary consumption contributes to social media memory. This is literalised through the shared literary preferences that make up a portion of the digital artifacts many people use to curate their identities, through websites like Goodreads, LibraryThing and Shelfari. There is certainly further work to be done to examine how fictional narratives influence our identities, and in the era of social media this process may become easier to map.



Storytelling: we're aware in the 21st century of the constructedness of our online identities and the narrativization of our memories [Image by Local Studies NSW under a CC-BY-NC license]


In the 21st century we are sharing our lives in real time. In some ways memory is less essential than it once was because the smallest nuances of our experiences can be archived across a large variety of media. We are also less capable of rewriting memories because the proof is there, not just locked into our own digital personas, but insinuated into the social media profiles of our network of acquaintances. If a ‘social memory object’ has broad appeal in a public network, then once it is released there is little chance of getting it back.

And so we tell stories. Perhaps because we are aware of this constructedness, because we know a change of opinion or tweaking of fact in the future can be verified via the museum of social networking tools, we embrace that what we are doing is a narrativization in the first instance. Van Dijck acknowledges that ‘memory is no longer what we remember it to be, but then, memory probably never quite was how we remember it and may never be what it is now’ (182). Memory may be difficult to pin down, but it functions as a useful metaphor through which to examine how the people of a particular time and place are shaped by politics, culture and technology. It is often said that our memories make us who we are. I would assert that today, at least with regard to social media, who we are makes our memories.


CITATION: Courtney Hopf, "Social Media Memory," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 6 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 November 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.6.01.


Dr Courtney Hopf is a part-time lecturer in Brunel University's School of Arts and the acting manager of the universitiy's central learning development unit. She received her PhD from the University of California, Davis in December 2011, and is currently preparing a monograph based on her dissertation titled Story Networks: The Politics and Poetics of Mass-Collaboration.




[1] A search for “collective memory” in the MLA Biblography, for example, returns an overwhelming number of articles on the Holocaust, war, exile, gendered abuse, AIDS, genocide, and terrorism.

[2] See my chapter ‘The Stories We Tell: Discursive Identity Through Narrative Form in Cloud Atlas,’ in David Mitchell: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon, Canterbury: Gylphi, 2011.


Works Cited:

Culler, Jonathan.  Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (New York: Routledge, 1975).

Garner, Jeremy.  ‘The Curated Self: How Social Media Creates the “Virtual Self.”’  10 May 2012.  Available at:  http://wallblog.co.uk/2012/05/10/the-curated-self/#ixzz1uYVlFaUx [accessed 13 October 2012].

Hogan, Bernie.  ‘The Presentation of the Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online.’  Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society 30(6): 377-386, http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0270467610385893.

King, Nicola.  Memory, Narrative, Identity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

Neiger, Motti, Oren Meyers and Eyal Zandberg, eds. On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Page, Ruth.  Stories and Social Media: Identities and Interaction (London: Routledge, 2012).

van Dijck, José.  Mediated Memories in the Digital Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).



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