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The Memory Monopoly

In an age of digital footprints but diminishing attention spans, who decides what we remember?
Yasser digital memories image 3
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The internet does not forget but we people do. And we do it quicker than ever. Are the Internet and information bombardment of social media responsible for our shortening attention spans? Or does the ever-lasting memory provided by the Internet enable us to recall past events perpetually? Does social media decide what to bring to our attention and what to quietly hide behind the flood of information?

“Yes and no” is probably the right answer to all these questions. There has been little research on these topics so far, but the existing research suggests that depending on the conditions, the design of the platform, the level of engagement of the users, and other parameters, online tools could have a great influence on the way we distribute our attention and rather limited memory between the competing items in the attention market.

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"We do not exactly know who the gate-keepers of our attention are, but whoever they are, they could manoeuvre the whole flow of attention at the societal level..."
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In a research project, my team and I have studied the particular case of airline crashes. We studied hundreds of accidents and incidents in the history of aviation and tried to quantify the dynamics of attention to the current events, and the way that these current events trigger our memory and curiosity of the past events.

In short, we observed that the level of attention that we pay to the individual cases varies a lot, and its relationship to the “impact” of the event, measured, for instance, by the human casualty caused by the event, does not follow simple rules. There is a huge bias in the level of attention when you control the number of people who died in the crash. An American death triggers about 50 times more attention compared to an African death, as long as we measure the level of attention through the number of page views of the Wikipedia article about the flight disasters.

On the other hand, while for “smaller” events with less than 50 deaths, it is hard to predict the volume of collective attention, for larger events, there seems to be a stable relation between the number of deaths and the level of attention.  Finally, the span of our attention to this type of events is very short. Regardless of the impact and the size of the event, we seem to lose our interest after 3-8 days.

This result could be alarming; in short, we are biased and short-sighted but, on the other hand, we observed that the current event might trigger our attention to the past events that we would not bother about otherwise - to a great extent. In certain cases, a new airline crash has produced a big flow of attention to “similar” cases dating back to 40 years ago.

The rather recent suicidal case of the Germanwings flight made people read about the case of the American Airline Flight 587 that went down in New York due to “pilot error while encountering wake turbulence and incorrect pilot training” in 2001. Another example is the case of the Iran Air flight 655, which was shot down by a US navy guided missile in 1988 causing the death of 290 civilians. This was actually not something that people remembered well at all. However, it suddenly got a lot of attention when the Malaysia Airlines 17 flight was hit by a missile over Ukraine in 2014. The Iran Air accident got on average about 500 daily views on Wikipedia before the Malaysia Airlines event, but this increased to 120,000 views per day right afterwards.

We know very little though about the underlying mechanisms that generate this pattern. Media plays an important role and social media not only amplifies the echo, but might even initiate ripples of attention to certain things themselves. We do not exactly know who the gate-keepers are, but whoever they are, they could manoeuvre the whole flow of attention at the societal level.

Systems such as Wikipedia are more open and democratic and, even though they are not free from biases, at least in theory they are not selective. Facebook friends feed (that is seen as a news feed by many users) on the other hand is biased and selective by design. Our feeds are personalized at the individual level in order to maximize our engagement with the platform and our satisfaction from using it, and to maximize the company’s revenue. The cost of this - for a typical user -  is having a very biased view of the current affairs and the things and events that are important and “worth-noting”.

Online social platforms and knowledge repositories together shorten our attention span and make us move to newer things very quickly. However, they also provide us with the opportunity to recall, remember, and educate ourselves about things that would have been mostly forgotten otherwise. One way or another, similar to any other technology, they can build or destroy.

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