Social media has changed. After 10 years of popular use, the information in our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter profiles is no longer just about the current moment or instant connections. Instead of simply broadcasting our thoughts and actions as they happen, these platforms have become a biographical archive of our lives, storing our photos and recording where we went and who we were with. The result of this archiving is that social media is taking on a new role in the way that we remember. By David Beer
Even the most ephemeral social media platform, Snapchat, has now joined in this archiving process with the launch of its Memories feature. Until now, Snapchat’s unique selling point has been that its picture messages were designed to disappear within seconds of being sent. The new function lets you build a “personal collection of your favourite moments” (that is, archive images taken with your phone), which can then be kept private or shared.
The sociologist Mike Featherstone has argued that humans have a powerful impulse to archive. We even see this in the history of the modern state, which today wants to capture and record large amounts of information about peoples’ lives. Smartphones and the internet mean that we can now satisfy this drive at the level of our everyday lives. Snapchat’s Memories feature seems to exactly fit with this impulse.
So if we rely more and more on social media to archive our memories, how will it shape how we remember? As time passes, more of people’s lives will be captured in these profiles. And when we want to remember our lives and the lives of the people we connect with, we will inevitably turn to the data stored in these social media archives. Our memories might then be shaped by the types of things that we choose to include in our visible social media profiles, or even in less visible spaces
protected by our privacy settings (as included in the Memories feature).
Featherstone has also argued that an archive, as a space in which documents are captured and classified, is “a place for creating and reworking memory”. What we put in our social profiles and how we classify it will then shape what is remembered and how those memories are recalled. For example, the tags and labels we add to photos stored online will affect what we later recall about the occasion and the people who were there. Our social media profiles are filtered versions of our lives that display a managed persona, so they will likely create an archive of certain types of favourable memories that fit with this persona.
Making social media about the past
As we come increasingly to rely on social media as an archive, the way we add to it will also inevitably change. We won’t just be posting in the moment but will also have an eye on the future. We will be thinking about the way that our content will be received and imagining how it will be drawn upon to remember our past from some unknown future moment. We might, for instance, post about our holidays on the basis of how we will wish to look back on that trip. It will change how we use social media to record any moment or period in our lives.
This is one of the ways in which the philosopher Jacques Derrida claimed that archives operate. He said archives are a kind of “pledge” to the future. We make judgements, he claimed, about what to include and how to tag it, based on how we imagine it will be used in the future. So, as people use Snapchat Memories and other services like it, they will be posting based on a vision of how it might be used in the future to evoke memories.
This use of social media to remember, with our profiles being individual and collective archives of our lives, will mean that the content created will shape future memories. These memories will be created and reworked through the choices we make about what to include in our profiles and will also be a product of how we imagine that memorialisation to play out in the future. Social media might be about broadcasting our lives and connecting with networks, but these new features mean that they are also based upon a pledge to future memories.