If you said the year 1967 to me, the memory that would pop into my head would be of Haight-Ashbury (ground zero for the counterculture movement), hippies and the summer of love. In fact, that same memory would effectively stand in for the period 1967 to 1969. In my mind, those three years were variations on the theme of Woodstock, the iconic music festival of 1969.
But none of those are my memories. I was alive, but my own memories of that time are indistinct and fuzzy. I was only 6 that year and lived in Alberta, some 1300 miles from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury Streets, so I have discarded my own personal representative memories. The ones I have were all created by images that came via media.
The Swapping of Memories
This is an example of the two types of memories we have – personal or “lived” memories and collective memories. Collective memories are the memories we get from outside, either for other people or, in my example, from media. As we age, there tends to be a flow back and forth between these two types or memories, with one type coloring the other.
One group of academics proposed an hourglass model as a working metaphor to understand this continuous exchange of memories – with some flowing one way and others flowing the other. Often, we’re not even aware of which type of memory we’re recalling, personal or collective. Our memories are notoriously bad at reflecting reality.
What is true, however, is that our personal memories and our collective memories tend to get all mixed up. The lower our confidence in our personal memories, the more we tend to rely on collective memories. For periods before we were born, we rely solely on images we borrow.
What is true for all memories, ours or the ones we borrow from others, is we put them through a process called “leveling and sharpening.” This is a type of memory consolidation where we throw out some of the detail that is not important to us – this is leveling – and exaggerate other details to make it more interesting – i.e. sharpening.
Take my borrowed memories of 1967, for example. There was a lot more happening in the world than whatever was happening in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, but I haven’t retained any of it in my representative memory of that year. For example, there was a military coup in Greece, the first successful human heart transplant, the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a series of deadly tornadoes in Chicago and Typhoon Emma left 140,000 people homeless in the Philippines. But none of that made it into my memory of 1967.
We could call the memories we do keep as “iconic” – which simply means we chose symbols to represent a much bigger and more complex reality – like everything that happened in a 365 day stretch 5 and a half decades ago.
Mass Manufactured Memories
Something else happens when we swap our own personal memories for collective memories – we find much more commonality in our memories. The more removed we become from our own lived experiences, the more our memories become common property.
If I asked you to say the first thing that comes to mind about 2002, you would probably look back through your own personal memory store to see if there was anything there. Chances are it would be a significant event from your own life, and this would make it unique to you. If we had a group of 50 people in a room and I asked that question, I would probably end up with 50 different answers.
But if I asked that same group what the first thing is that comes to mind when I say the year 1967, we would find much more common ground. And that ground would probably be defined by how each of us identify ourselves. For some you might have the same iconic memory that I do – that of the Haight Ashbury and the Summer of Love. Others may have picked the Vietnam War as the iconic memory from that year. But I would venture to guess that in our group of 50, we would end up with only a handful of answers.
When Memories are Made of Media
I am taking this walk down Memory Lane because I want to highlight how much we rely on the media to supply our collective memories. This dependency is critical, because once media images are processed by us and become part of our collective memories, they hold tremendous sway over our beliefs. These memories become the foundation for how we make sense of the world.
This is true for all media, including social media. A study in 2018 (Birkner & Donk) found that “alternative realities” can be formed through social media to run counter to collective memories formed from mainstream media. Often, these collective memories formed through social media are polarized by nature and are adopted by outlier fringes to justify extreme beliefs and viewpoints. This shows that collective memories are not frozen in time but are malleable – continually being rewritten by different media platforms.
Like most things mediated by technology, collective memories are splintering into smaller and smaller groupings, just like the media that are instrumental in their formation.