At a recent session of the Culture Memory Group, Professor Andrew Hoskins from the University of Glasgow invited us to consider the significance of forgetting in understanding memory and in particular, approaching memory in the digital media ecology. In my PhD project I have followed the path of memory studies in focusing on memory yet thinking about the entanglement of memory and forgetting sheds light on the way young women engage in digital memory work in my case study.
Hoskins suggests that forgetting is memory’s silent partner, which remains elusive in research. How do we begin to conceptualise what forgetting is and how might this be represented? The challenge is to move beyond forgetting as loss of memory or as absence and erasure. It is also connected to latency and the potential for something to become memory. Digital forgetting is dynamic, not static because the flows of digital data reshape how we think about presence and absence.
A key theme in digital memory studies is the increased potential and uncertainty for digital traces to be discovered and disseminated unpredictably after the moment in which they were recorded or archived, as part of the entanglement of machine, human, and memory. Hoskins dubs this as emergence. The past lurks in new and unpredictable ways. It emerges. On a personal level you may experience this when Facebook reminds you ‘On This Day’ five years ago, you posted this, or you receive a notification that someone has scrolled back and retweeted an old opinion you wish you never had. The conventional expectation that media stabilises, strengthens and secures memory is undermined as the digital renders the past as more uncertain.
Nevertheless, we are lulled into a false sense that we can achieve total memory and that this can be controlled through the apps, platforms, and devices we use. Forgetting can occur through the erasure of traces. Hoskins situates this as part of a mode of digital forgetting, the present made past. The present is recorded and instantly archived.
Reflecting on the pilot research I am conducting, I can see empirical support for this. Participants discussed the way they actively performed digital memory work on Facebook and Instagram through sharing practices. The present is continually being made the past. Interestingly, the need to digitally remember bleeds into the experience of the present. This is exemplified through the way that one young woman reflected on her Instagram posts and stories of a trip to Paris with her friends. The digital memory work was not confined to the platform or reflection of the past experience in the present. Rather, it was part of the trip itself. Some of the places they went, outfits they wore and how time was spent was in anticipation of the recording and archiving that would occur.
The erasure of digital traces can also be interpreted as a form of digital forgetting. For example, one participant removed images of a previous romantic relationship or posts that had made sense at the time in which they were uploaded but no longer did. In my work I had framed digital memory work around selectivity, belonging and trust. Forgetting offers another way to tease about the affective dimension of remembering. The expectations cultivated among users is that social media spaces should be used for sharing positive and celebratory memories. One participant summarised this as sharing highlights, not only referring to her use of Instagram Stories Highlights but the way posts reflected the best moments of her life. The selectivity of digital memory work means that certain types of memories do not belong in this social space. These are forgotten.
My observations of the way young women navigate, post and interact on Facebook and Instagram examines their performances. If digital memory work also involves forgetting, how do I capture this in the design of my research? Already I have observed in the case of one participant a removal of previous Instagram posts prior to 2019 but only due to its magnitude. This echoes Hoskins question of how forgetting is represented.
For Hoskins an interdisciplinary and collaborative project with the artist Shona Illingworth called Topologies of Air is helping him think this through. In one art piece, there are layers of images, YouTube stills, drone vision, maps and shattered glass over an aerial depiction of Aleppo. The clustering of images across time and space, he suggests, allows him to consider how events are remembered and forgotten within this context. Extending this, a participant’s social media profile could be considered as a slice that could be layered upon one other over time. There are also layers of memory attached to each post. The memory of the experience the post refers to, the memory of posting and the memory of re-engaging with posted content. Attending to these layers of memory may allow for forgetting to emerge in new and useful ways.
As I continue to engage with pilot research that will guide the larger study, I carry a greater awareness of the way that intersections of digital forgetting and remembering might advance my understanding of the dynamics of memory and social media platforms.
Cultural Memory Group is a reading group based at King’s College London for postgraduate and early career researchers to gather to discuss concepts and theories in the field of memory studies. Through funding from the Faculty of Arts & Humanities in 2018/2019 the group has hosted a series of workshops and sessions with speakers centred on specific themes.