Why You’re More Likely to Remember A Facebook Status Than a Face

Our online musings may not be so ephemeral after all

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Remember a year ago, when the cousin of your college roommate posted a Facebook status that she got engaged? Sure you do. In fact, according to a recent study, you remember that Facebook status more than a line from a book or a stranger’s face.

Even if the quips are from complete strangers, new research published in the journal Memory & Cognition found these Facebook posts are about one and a half times more memorable than sentences in books and two and a half times more memorable than faces.

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To understand how we process information absorbed from social media, researchers from the University of California San Diego (UCSD) and the University of Scranton asked 280 undergraduates to read 100 sentences pulled from Facebook pages, 100 sentences extracted from books — none of which were more than 25 words long — and a series of pictures of human faces. The participants were then prompted with the same phrases and pictures and asked to recall which ones they had seen previously. Which were more memorable? The students remembered more of the Facebook posts than either the reading passages or the faces.

And because the scientists removed extraneous punctuation, leaving only words, the sharper recall wasn’t due to  smiley emoticons, writing in all caps or those ubiquitous multiple explanation points to “I’m having the BEST day EVER!!!!!” that pepper Facebook writings.

Instead, the researchers speculate that Facebook posts’ unforgetableness could be related to their coherency and “gossipy” tone. It’s easier to recall a chatty or witty post about the antics of someone’s cat, for example, than it is to remember a line from Great Expectations. To test this, the research team repeated the experiment using news headlines from CNN, lines from CNN stories about either breaking news or entertainment, and reader comments. The headlines were recalled better than random sentences from the stories, and entertainment headlines were more memorable than those from news stories.

But of all the bits of text, what the participants remembered the most were the readers’ comments, suggesting that our brains are more likely to recall patterns of speech that fall in line with our spontaneous thought processes.

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“Not only is the Facebook memory effect strong, but we replicated the effect each time,” says study author Laura Mickes, a visiting scholar at UCSD and senior research fellow at the University of Warwick. “One would not expect posts written casually to be remembered better than words penned by professional authors and edited by professional editors, but that is exactly what we found, repeatedly.”

The authors suggest that causally written and unedited posts are more “mind-ready,” meaning that natural wording sticks in our mind because it’s how we speak day-to-day. The authors write:

It seems that, with the growth of blogging, text messaging, and the like, written language has moved closer to natural speech, with less editing and contemplation than was needed not only when writing was done by monks with goose-feather quills or by Gutenberg with moveable type, but even when it is done by authors sitting patiently at their own keyboards.

“This is surprising, and gives us a glimpse into how memory works and has implications for how we learn, advertise and generally communicate,” says Mickes.

Does that mean the written word is becoming more colloquial? The research wasn’t designed to answer that question, but the findings hint that some shift in how we write is certainly occurring in our online communications. And the results certainly show that everything we post on social media may live longer in the memory banks of our “friends” than we’d like.

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