Tools for Memory Retention

Researcher creates online system for memory triggers.

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“What does what I put in Facebook tell me about my relationships? What do I not put in social media?” he says.  “We talked to people, and asked them to keep a diary about their behaviors online,” he says.  “We asked people to write down what they decided to put-- and not put--on Facebook about their romantic partners, and what they thought about the stuff their romantic partners put on Facebook.”

They found that people use these data in a number of ways. Older photos and messages often help people think about specific moments in their relationships, while looking at how the words they use change over time helps them see the bigger picture.

But parts of the picture are missing, he says.  “We found that those with close relationships don’t talk to each other on Facebook; they use other media, such as text messages. Mundane things often don’t appear, and people tend not to talk about negative things online.”

Cosley has concluded that researchers must keep in mind that material that never makes it online is also often important for understanding what is happening in social media. “We like to think that the data we see about people online is really important and revelatory, and that we can build useful models of what people are thinking, and patterns of behavior,” he says. “But some of the important stuff never makes it into social media, and you have to think about why that is, and how that affects the data you work with and the conclusions you draw.”

Interestingly, the idea of recalling the past now seems to have caught on with other social media.  Facebook, for example, now encourages its members to use its new “timeline” feature on their personal pages, and tools like Momento and Timehop are like “better versions of Pensieve,” Cosley says. “But Pensieve was the first demonstration application that we could take the past in social media and use it to help people understand themselves.

“A lot of people don’t sit down to reflect and reminisce, and when they use tools that encourage them to do this, they seem to feel better about themselves,” he adds.  “Whether it’s a momentary reflection that makes you feel good, or more end-of-life stuff, where you are coming to terms with who you are--almost all the outcomes of reminiscing are positive.”