The event, much like the death of Whitney Houston, generated an outpouring of nostalgia and emotion online, followed by a collective rush to define its relevance for others. Whether we like it or not, these moments serve as an example of the new role we all play in the crafting of a collective, global memory.
This is especially true for the latest generation, which grew up almost entirely online. As Boing Boing’s Xeni Jardin wrote in 2011 for The Edge , for this younger generation, the Web is a type of “ambient memory” where memories are everywhere and shared by everyone.
The Web has a unique ability to change not only what we remember but also how we remember. As L.V. Anderson of Slate pointed out on Apr. 6, the trend of curating "stupid people's tweets" has even emerged. There were the “stupid” tweets questioning who Paul McCartney was after his performance at the Grammys, or the ones from users who wondered aloud whether the Titanic was a real ship. We can think of these “stupid people’s tweets” as nothing more than a good viral meme to share with our friends (“Can you believe how stupid people are?”) or as signs of how the vast memory of the Web can help auto-correct the failings of individual memories and educate the uninitiated.
There is a term in psychology, "transactive memory", that describes this phenomenon. As Daniel Wegner outlined in 1985, when many individuals with specialized knowledge are linked together as part of a trusted collaborative, it is possible to transform memories and recollections into an externally shared resource. Nearly all of us experience this on a regular basis. Consider, for example, how members of a family take turns recounting shared experiences. Certain details that one person forgets, another remembers. Just as families share memories, so can organizations and social networks. The Web is perhaps the ultimate example of transactive memory at work.
Even governments are re-thinking the way we remember, as elected and appointed officials recognize the power of using the Web as a shared external memory. It used to be that vast archives were preserved and protected by trusted public sector gatekeepers for safekeeping. We trusted these institutions with our collective memories.
Now, they trust us.
For example, in late April, the New York City Municipal Archive uploaded its vast digital photography archives of 1 million photos dating back to the mid-1800’s. The photos encourage people to remember and share New York’s rich past. Seeing rare photos of the construction of the Manhattan bridge circa 1908, even for the tens of thousands of Manhattan commuters, has a unique, emotional resonance.
All of us, at one time or another, have reached into the Web for memories. We no longer need to store them all for ourselves. Turning to the Web as an external shared drive is a trend that will only accelerate as we individually continue to produce more information than any one person can reasonably be expected to catalogue and store.
Dominic Basulto is a digital thinker at Bond Strategy and Influence (formerly called Electric Artists) in New York. Prior to Bond Strategy and Influence, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of Corante.com, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."
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