The Problem With Putting Social Media in Charge of Our Memories

The internet is very good at bringing up things from our past, but what if we don’t want to be reminded?

Jayne Williamson-Lee
OneZero
Published in
7 min readMay 9, 2020

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Photo: 3alexd/Getty Images

In late November of 2018, Facebook users who logged onto the platform found themselves flooded with old messages reappearing in Messenger as unread. The sudden surge of messages came from a bug that Facebook resolved the same day. But even after the messages vanished, the blip had a lasting effect on some users. As one journalist who saw messages brought back to life told The Atlantic, it was “yet another weird way that your past can come back to haunt you.”

Like the old Facebook messages, there are lingering reminders of the past in all our digital spaces. Odds are, you’ll scroll through Instagram and see a friend you’ve lost touch with has posted again, or reopen an old text conversation that reminds you of an older version of yourself — your jokes, stories, and slang preserved verbatim. These reminders can catch us by surprise or even kind of hurt.

“Many [messages] were from the day my partner, Dean, passed away,” one man tweeted after the Facebook bug, “& now I’ve spent my evening in fear of what else I’m going to see.”

When the internet forces us to confront our past, how should we respond? There aren’t many options in the way of managing old chat threads and emails, posts, and photos, except to save or delete them — two pretty extreme options. Inevitably, people want to defer their decisions about which emails to consign to oblivion and save them for later when they might have the mental energy to sort through each individual message or photo and decide what it’s worth. But most people never get around to that. Most of us end up saving the majority of our past digital correspondences, despite our best efforts: one study found that we only manage to delete about 30% of our emails, another that we only scrap 17% of our photos.

Platforms like Gmail, with their ever-increasing storage capacities, may also be encouraging us to save — and incidentally, to remember. “We’re facing an intriguing inversion point in human memory,” observes Clive Thompson in his book Smarter Than You Think. “We’re moving from a period in which most of the details of…

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