At some point after I moved out of my parents’ house, I went through the things I’d been keeping in my old bedroom closet. Mostly I was greeted by clothes I no longer wore and an onslaught of tangled hangers, but pushed toward the back was a shoebox I’d labeled my “memory box.”
It was an eclectic assortment: ribbons I’d won at my elementary school’s art fair, seashells from family beach trips, a diary I’d kept for a few weeks in the sixth grade (which was as embarrassing as it sounds). There were photos, too: some taken far away at summer camp, some featuring the white pansies flanking our front door.
These days, my memories are much more likely to be hosted by Instagram than a shoebox. It wasn’t a decision, even. It was just that sometime between then and now, two things happened: smaller living quarters (i.e. apartment living) forced me to stop intentionally preserving memories through journals, photo albums, and other meaningful items, and I started posting photos of my experiences on social media.
Unfortunately, this shift in my memory-preserving has not been without consequences. As it turns out, the “social” element of social media can skew our memories, often to their detriment.
And yet, with 77 percent of the U.S. population now owning smartphones, more and more of us are defaulting to social media when it comes to storing our memories. Just how might we be losing out?
Always in front of an audience
Beneath the abundance of travel photos and happy hour grams lies a subtler shift than the rise of smartphones: a change in audience.
Imagine that my friends in elementary school had also kept memory boxes, but instead of hiding them safely in our closets we lined them up outside our classroom for public consumption. If I’d even dared to keep that sixth-grade diary, it would have given a much more favorable account of what was going on at school (in my very best handwriting, no less). Only the prettiest photos would have made the cut, and I’d probably have tossed any art-fair ribbons that boasted less than first place.
What was deeply personal would instead have been self-consciously curated. Sound familiar?
By now, the “highlight reel” effect is a well-known byproduct of social media: Everyone else’s lives seem glamorous and perfect, so we project only the most glamorous and perfect parts of our lives. (Of course, behind all our respective devices are imperfect and often decidedly un-glamorous individuals who will sooner schedule a dentist appointment than a flight to Europe.)
When we’re hyper-aware of our social media audience, it’s easy to forget that our experiences belong first and foremost to ourselves. Where memory-keeping is concerned, we often record experiences in anticipation of the social media posts they will become, rather than as the personal experiences they are.
And according to a recent study led by NYU professor of marketing Alixandra Barasch, it may diminish our enjoyment in the moment.
“We find that when the intention to share photos with others is salient during the experience, it decreases consumers’ enjoyment of that experience, relative to taking photos to preserve memories for the self,” write Barasch and her co-authors. “This decrease occurs because taking photos to share involves the prospect of being evaluated or judged by others, increasing self-presentational concern” (emphasis added).
In other words, worrying about how many likes you’ll get on the photo you’re taking actually does translate to less fun.
Furthermore, even the quality of our photos doesn’t escape our concern. As photo-editing apps and professional photoshoots continue to proliferate, the envy that used to point mostly toward the present—Why isn’t my life as fun/interesting/successful as everyone else’s?—now looks backward at how well we’ve kept our memories: Why didn’t I get better photos at my graduation? or Should we have sprung for a Christmas family photoshoot? Whether we got a photo isn’t enough; it’s whether we got the perfect photo that matters.
Neglecting our other senses
In addition to the stress we take on when we’re documenting our lives for an audience, we also tend to limit ourselves to visual media. Photos and videos are easily shared.
Our other senses, however, may be even better stewards. Have you ever been transported to your childhood by the scent of your grandmother’s perfume? Or stepped outside on an ordinary Tuesday and realized that the weather was precisely the same the day you got married? Or heard a song on the radio that brings you back to that summer you spent behind the concession stand at your local movie theater?
In fact, our sense of smell is more effective at triggering memories than sight or sound, which explains why the most fleeting whiff of a familiar scent can send us backward into our pasts. And as for music? A 2009 study found that the same part of the brain that stores and retrieves memories also links memories, music, and emotions.
Not only does focusing on photos draw our attention from what we’re taking in with our other senses, the act of taking a photo itself can make us remember less about an event.
Psychologist Linda Henkel calls it the “photo-taking impairment effect.” In her now-famous study, subjects took photos of some objects in an art museum and simply observed others. When given a memory test following their tour, they remembered less about the objects they’d photographed than those they hadn’t. More recently, another study generated similar findings.
Paradoxically, our desire to hold onto our memories is often what blunts them.
Relearning to remember
So what do we do?
First, I suggest we take a step back and remember what we like about social media, like the ability to connect with people who are miles away, to be inspired by true beauty and creativity, to share little pieces of our lives. Many people enjoy photography for its own sake, for which Instagram is the perfect outlet. Many a small business has succeeded by building an audience online. For all its ills, social media offers a lot of good.
But it’s time we started keeping memories for ourselves, not for other people.
Some of that means embracing imperfection. Life isn’t perfect, and it’s okay if our photos aren’t either. I’m talking about the ones that are grainy or have an irresponsibly large stack of mail in the background, or where you look kind of terrible, but your kid was smiling and looking at the camera. The ones you like—or would like if you weren’t measuring them by social media standards.
A lot of it, though, means taking a risk on your other senses and putting away your phone.
Try it until you’re in the habit of noticing smells and sounds as much as colors. Try it until your phone feels less like a limb. Try it until that little impulse to take a photo for Instagram fades—even in the face of a stunning sunset over the ocean.
Since our son was born last year, my husband and I have been grappling with this question with a new urgency. We landed on a private SmugMug account and a commitment not to post too much on social media. But who knows? Maybe we’ll have to look for an empty shoebox.