How our outsourced memory is learning to be forgetful!

By: William Buist on : 18th June 2016: Business articles: 3 Comments

Where social media first started it was clunky and slow, little more than threaded conversations on a platform with a lot of people talking at once. It’s become a lot more nuanced and subtle, with groups and privacy settings as well as notification control that means no two people quite use the platforms in the same way.

The most highly transient, like twitter, have been working to make their conversations work better by making them more enduring, whilst the least transient, like LinkedIn, are moving in the other direction. Why?

Human memory is an amazing thing, we can recall events and things people said from decades ago, we’ll find ourselves singing along to a riff we haven’t heard for years, yet we can’t remember if we just locked the car as we walk away from it.

Social media, and indeed the internet as a whole, is evolving to a similar model. Google’s algorithms, which used to give perfect recall, now don’t they seek to recall contextually and are getting better at that. They know who is searching as well as what they have searched for, so when you search for a coach, an event booker will tend to get information about 53 seater buses, and a business owner about who can help him resolve his people issues.

Tweets once flown used to disappear, now they can be embedded and locked into other memories and contexts, more easily recalled. Facebook updates are being pushed back to us on anniversaries so that we can embed those that matter in our psyche. LinkedIn’s recent purchase by Microsoft will likely bring email and social updates closer, and make the important stand out in different ways. Yet often what we say only has momentary interaction and engagement, drifting into the long good night without a fanfare. Recalling those things takes effort and dedication to trawl through the history or the results of searches that were poorly formed because we really can’t work out exactly what to search for.

Quietly, almost without noticing we’ve outsourced our memory to social media, and now they are having to create the right sorts of forgetfulness so we can make sense of it all.



3 thoughts on How our outsourced memory is learning to be forgetful!

  • Interesting thoughts, William. I hadn’t thought about recent developments by Twitter, LinkedIn, Google & Facebook in that way. But, I think you’re right.

    The other theme that emerges for me, from your reflections, is the criticality of context. Like the growing prompts on Facebook & others, to capture your location & emotions alongside your post, we make sense of our memories & conversations through context.

    Hopefully this will become less forced or manipulative & more transparently a way to help future recall or, to grandiose, aid Knowledge Management. It still feels like there is an unmet need here. Tools like Evernote, OneNote, social media & event humble eMail help me provide some order to my thoughts & conversations. But my digital life still lacks that contextually intelligence memory to store & recall information when it will help me make better decisions in future.

    This is not just a challenge for technology developers, though. Customer Insight leaders, amongst others, need to get better at managing what they know already & communicating with context.

    Still much more to learn from the polymaths who can join-up learning from Psychology, NeuroScience, Computing, Marketing & Business. Plenty to keep us busy & interested, as long as we can still remember what the question was.

    Now where are those car keys??

  • Brilliant article! There seems to be a trend for the written and spoken word to be revived along with a bit of face to face good humour!
    Humans are brilliant animals from the cathedrals they built with no technology to indeed technology. Videos on FB produce sound but there is nothing to beat a good conversation face to face with a friend. One rarely forgets salient parts of what is said.

  • Much food for thought here Willam. Thank you for such an insightful article.
    The automated use of social media as an adjunct to our individual memories is has been inadvertantly growing over the last few years and it’s interesting that the human need and propensity to filter out the irrelevent stuff is now being replicated by Facebook, Linkedin etc. on our behalf.

    However, isn’t there a danger that outsourcing our memories will not only mean giving extraordinary power to the new institutions holding the data (even more than they already have, which is considerable) but also a dulling down of our human abilities (think sat-nav / map-reading abilities).

    Having said that, I and colleagues are working hard to develop a collective memory software product that will enable users to tap in to the published memories of others. I will work in real time such that as a user is inputing their thoughts, the program will pop up similar relevent thoughts from the published collective memory of all other users on the system. A sort of “global mind”.

    I suppose the main difference between this and what is happening broadly across social media is that it will be entirely in the hands of users.

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