The internet never forgets, but people do

The acceleration of technological innovation and wealth of information available online is having a profound effect on the way we remember

Thanks to the internet, we can store our memories in a far more accessible way, meaning a wider range of users can tap into them with the click of a button

Like the proverbial elephant, the internet has an infallible and durable memory. Year on year it grows, swelling with news reports, videos, photographs and games; an intangible brain that millions of users can tap into at any moment. As more aspects of our lives shift online, the internet is storing more and more information about us in its vast database.

This wealth of data is having a profound effect on our human collective memory – that is to say, the shared pool of information that society can tap into. On the one hand, technology is providing us with more sources of information, giving us access to a wider range of communities and a new way of storing memories. On the other, it’s bombarding us with so much content, of varying degrees of legitimacy, that we’re struggling to process information in the same way as before.

Collaborative thinking
Collective memory is a communal pot of information that appears in the memories of two or more members of a social group. The term was coined in the 1920s by philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who wrote La Mémoire Collective (The Collective Memory). But the age of mass media and, more recently, the digital era, has introduced new elements to our understanding of collective memory and the way modern society remembers.

Sharing in the same cultural moment and subsequently sharing our memories of that moment allows us to feel part of something greater than ourselves

Dr Stephanie Baker, a sociology lecturer at City, University of London, explained: “When we speak about collective memory, we still mean what we meant 20 years ago, prior to the ubiquity of the internet. What has changed, though, is our means of accessing collective memories, storing, discovering and retrieving them. It is our interaction with our memories that has changed.”

The digital age has provided us with a wealth of new collective memories, from the news and film to photographs, quotes, songs, adverts and more. Thanks to the internet, we can store those memories in a far more accessible way, meaning a wider range of users can tap into them with the click of a button.

Social media has also attributed a new quality to those memories by allowing us to actively contribute to them, whether that’s by sharing a homemade video, liking a Facebook post or watching a live stream on Twitter. “Events are not only collectively committed to memory now, but also actively collectively produced,” said Dr Taha Yassieri, a professor at the Oxford Internet Institute.

This type of collaborative, mass, collective memory is closely linked to the formation of a new sort of community. Sharing in the same cultural moment and subsequently sharing our memories of that moment allows us to feel part of something greater than ourselves. It allows us to connect with people, creating new kinds of communities that don’t rely on physical proximity, but on shared interests and memories. It affords a new sense of belonging, kinship and commonality that didn’t previously exist in the same way.

Baker offers an example: “In 2015, a girl named Emily Trunko set up a Tumblr account [called] The Last Message Received in order to document the last messages people received from ex-significant others, deceased friends and relatives. Beyond providing a digital space to store memories, the account became this collective space where strangers who had this shared experience of loss could express their grief. Occupying this common space, albeit online, actually changed their experience and how they engaged with their memories. So the fact that digital technologies enable us to access communities in vast temporal and spatial settings has changed the ways in which we interact with memories and our past.”

Trust issues
While the construction of new communities is undoubtedly positive, the ability to contribute to collective memory through digital platforms can also pose issues, especially with regards to reliability. Digitalisation and online communities have generated a wealth of data that is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. That data can be reproduced and reframed as new events take place and related information, verifiable or not, comes to light.

Every one of our online actions is committed to a digital record and stored online to be accessed at any moment, by either ourselves or another party

Wikipedia is a key example of this, and offers insights into the shape-shifting nature of collective memory. From 2015 to 2016, Yassieri and his team at Oxford conducted a study that aimed to quantify collective memory through measuring page view statistics on Wikipedia. The team suggested that for a term, event or phenomenon to be searched for on Wikipedia it must exist in collective memory.

“One of our findings was that we have a very large collective memory,” Yassieri told The New Economy. “Events that are happening now trigger links to events that had happened even 30 or 40 years ago.” He argues that Wikipedia facilitates a better understanding of the world around us because it gives us easy access to information that we previously would have had to research in a library. “Digital media and digital encyclopaedias like Wikipedia mean that we’re just a click away from information relating to events happening around you at any given moment,” Yassieri added.

Yassieri notes that in the pre-internet era, information would have come from traditional media outlets such as newspapers, which are arguably far more reliable sources than Wikipedia or social media sites. He cites the Wikipedia entry about the Arab Spring, which is “different to what you might find in a monograph that doesn’t have a collective aspect to it”, such as an encyclopaedia or book. “[On Wikipedia,] there are different versions of the same truth that are being revised and rewritten every now and then. That introduced a whole new aspect to collective memory because it becomes a dynamic thing.”

Baker notes the dynamic aspect of the platform but argues that there are limitations to its collective nature. “Wikipedia is a very interesting example because it is often held up as this example of the democratisation of knowledge by virtue of the fact that anyone can contribute in theory,” she said. “But in practice, [it doesn’t] – there is actually a very small number of editors who are the gatekeepers of knowledge. So even though this knowledge can be updated more frequently than, say, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is still essentially edited by a minority of experts.”

Nevertheless, the reliability of information available remains a concern. “While online platforms have granted us access to untold datasets and insights, they are, as has been seen recently, also tools and targets for disinformation,” explained Paul Armstrong, founder of technology advisory firm Here/Forth. “Trustworthiness is a huge focus and on-going issue [for businesses,] whether big or small.” He argues, though, that platforms such as Facebook and Google have as much responsibility to ensure trustworthiness as their users. “After all, if no one trusts you, why will they return or use your products? This issue is as much a PR one as [a] usability one.”

Information overload
Aside from concerns surrounding trustworthiness, the sheer volume of information available online may also pose an issue for our collective minds. Technology gives us access to a digital world that is so large we simply can’t take all of it in or hope to remember its contents. The English version of Wikipedia has more than 29 million pages, 10 million of which are in the encyclopaedia, 4.1 million are articles and the rest are redirects. Social media is just as overwhelming, with more than 4.75 billion pieces of content shared on Facebook on a daily basis, and an average of 500 million tweets posted every 24 hours.

Baker argues that due to confirmation bias the amount of information we’re exposed to on a daily basis is a tiny proportion of what is actually out there. “Despite the so-called data deluge, most people only really select the media and information that appeals to them, particularly in terms of partisan interests,” she said. “The issue of storage is somewhat different, because now there are so many specialist interests that we don’t all become privy to the same information and so, unless something is a major world event, you don’t have the same collective memories that you would have had in the past, especially on a national level.”

In that sense, collective memory is becoming more segregated, with groups having different shared memories depending on their interests. Baker explained that both online and offline most people make friends with people who are similar to them: “They share similar values, so it is unlikely that they will be exposed to radically different views or new information on social media. A case in point is Brexit – people who were Remainers tended to be friends with Remainers and so they were shocked when the Leave campaign was successful. In this regard, social media exaggerates what happens offline – we interact with people like us and we’re largely surrounded by homogenous voices.”

Distance from reality
Certain events do have a national impact and, as such, are more likely to be committed to the collective memory. These tend to be traumatic events such as natural disasters, wars or political uprisings, which uphold the pre-internet understanding of collective memory that states trauma is most likely to leave a lasting mark on the hive mind.

Some have argued that digital sharing is having a detrimental effect on our processing and memory of traumatic events because of the distance that technology grants us from those events. “The attention span of users on social media is extremely short… No matter how big the impact, no matter how many people died, for example, we tend to forget about it and stop paying attention to it after five or six minutes,” said Yassieri. This is also true of political or social movements: “When it comes to online mobilisations of movements or information, things explode within a couple of hours, at most a day, then from there they only decay.”

This shortened attention span could also be attributed to the physical manner in which we use technology such as mobile phones. The swipe-left, swipe-right function effectively creates a physical gesture of dismissal, which triggers our brain into dismissing that piece of information too, rather than committing it to memory. Moreover, technology distances us from the world around us, making us insular and limiting our real-life interactions. This distance can also make us feel removed from events or conversations that we see taking place online, allowing us to dismiss and forget things that we may have remembered far better in the past.

Digital records after death
It’s not just human collective memory that we must consider; the internet has a memory too and it is not as quick to forget as we are. Every one of our online actions is committed to a digital record and stored online to be accessed at any moment, by either ourselves or another party. This ranges from regretted social media posts to personal documents such as bank statements, tax records and medical records.

There have been various attempts in recent years to give us more control over our digital records, one of which was the introduction of European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and the right to erasure clause. This grants a person the right to have their data deleted if they no longer want it to be processed by another party, assuming that party has no legitimate reason to keep it. This data could be anything from an email address to a medical or legal record. The regulation is designed to address the fact that consent to access someone’s personal record is not enduring – allowing someone to view personal information once does not grant them the right to do so forever.

The enduring nature of our online record can also be problematic if we become unable to access or control our online presence. A key example of this is what to do with a person’s social media account after they have died. Most other digital services have systems in place for making information inaccessible to any unauthorised parties and even destroying it after death, but social media platforms do not. In August this year, Australian Instagram star Sinead McNamara died during her stewardship on a luxury yacht. McNamara had a substantial Instagram following and after her death her final post was flooded with comments, many of love and respect, but a significant proportion of which were attacks from online trolls.

As the majority of social platforms do not have transfer of ownership policies in place for their users’ deaths, McNamara’s friends and family have been unable to access her account. Her online profile has been harmed by malicious comments, which have denigrated the way she will now appear in the collective memory.

Safeguarding shared recollection
To some extent, there are certain aspects of collective memory that will always remain the same, regardless of the impact of technology. Collective memory will always be fallible because it relies on the unpredictable human mind. Similarly, it will always be transitory as it fluctuates with each generation. Certain events and images are ingrained in the collective consciousness now, but when this generation is no longer here, many memories will be lost to the past. Instead, we’ll rely on fragmented accounts from factual material rather than a retelling of what it was actually like to live through certain cultural moments.

Technology goes some way towards accelerating the forgetting and fragmenting process. The segmenting of collective memories and increased control over the internet’s hive mind means some events will be forgotten, even if the generation that experienced them is still alive. It also presents the risk that we won’t remember the things that really matter because they were presented in a transient way in the online world.

Being aware of this fact means we can take steps to make the most of technology. We can do this by taking advantage of the access to communities that technology affords while ensuring we don’t get so caught up in the online world that it has a detrimental effect on our memory function. There’s little research in the public domain about this issue and more awareness is needed, particularly to safeguard future generations from irreparable losses to their shared recollection. Technology should be a tool rather than a crutch – it should be a singular aspect of our collective memory, rather than its sole underpinning.