Posting about personal experiences on social media makes them easier to remember in the future, finds a new study—and no, it’s not just because Facebook reminds you of them every year.
Scientists have long known that writing down, talking about, or otherwise reflecting on events can help people recall them later. And one might assume that posting about them on social media sites—such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or a personal blog—could have similar, positive effects, the study authors wrote in the journal Memory.
But social media posts could have an opposite effect, as well: Research has also shown that when we become used to having information digitally available at all times, we tend to become reliant on the Internet and forget details more easily. “Accordingly, many of our life details may no longer need to be internally stored and retrieved if we know that we can later refer to our online journals to locate the information,” they wrote.
So the researchers set out to see which of these theories was true, in the first study to look at the effects of social media on memory.
First, they asked 66 Cornell undergraduates to keep a daily diary for a week. In the diary, they briefly described the events that happened to them each day outside of their normal routines. They were also asked to record whether they had posted about each of these events on social media, and to rate their personal importance and emotional intensity.
At the end of the week and again a week later, the students were given a surprise quiz to see how many events they could recall. During both quizzes, events the students had posted about online were easier for them to remember. This was true even when the researchers controlled for importance or intensity of the event; in other words, people weren’t simply posting about significant events they’d be more likely to remember anyway.
“If people want to remember personal experiences, the best way is to put them online,” said lead author Qi Wang, PhD, professor of human development in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, in a press release. All types of social media provide an important outlet for sharing experiences with others, she added, which can be an important part of the memory-building process.
“The process of writing about one's experiences in the public sphere, often sustained by subsequent social feedback, may allow people to reflect on the experiences and their personal relevance,” the authors wrote.
The study also noted that sharing personal perspectives of recent events on social media also helps people create and shape their “sense of self.”
“That’s happening when we use social media, without us even noticing it,” Wang explained. “We just think, ‘Oh, I’m sharing my experience with my friends.’ But by shaping the way we remember our experiences, it's also shaping who we are.” Features that allow you to look back at memories from the past—like Facebook’s On this Day feature or the third-party Timehop app—can help reinforce that sense of self, she said.
“Memory is often selective,” Wang said. “But in this case, the selection is not done by our own mind; it’s done by an outside resource. So interactive functions on social networking sites can also shape how we view our experiences, how we view ourselves.”
In fact, the authors write, the “virtual externalization of personal memories has become commonplace” in this technology-driven age. And their study, they say, is “the first step toward a better understanding of the autobiographical self in the Internet era.”