Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Mediated Memory

Remembering life using social media during pandemic times

Taylor Annabell

Like many in the CMCI academic community, my research has adapted and responded to the unfolding social environment brought about by Covid-19. In fact, entering lockdown in the UK on the 23rd March 2020 was the midway point for me in my fieldwork interviews. My PhD looks at how memory is entangled in how sharing occurs on social media platforms and why these connective spaces are valued by young women. Along with interviewing young women, I also engaged in ethnographic observations of their social media activities for a period of six months. As such, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the way that some of the young women have chosen to document and share about living through times of pandemic and lockdown. In particular, it has been insightful to trace continuities and change in the practices, posts and stories of the eight young women who I interviewed prior to lockdown. In this blog post, I offer some early thoughts on how my participants are sharing ‘memories’ from pre-Covid-19.

Previously shared stories and posts resurface algorithmically through the memory product, On This Day, on Facebook and Instagram. The platform seeks to determine and then select meaningful “memories” for the user to reflect on and (hopefully) share. Although there is a tendency in digital memory studies literature for this feature to be accepted somewhat at face value (Brandtzaeg & Lüders, 2018; Drakopoulou, 2017; Holloway & Green, 2017; Hoskins, 2016; Schoenebeck et al., 2016), it has been critiqued for asserting on behalf of users what their ‘memories’ are (Smit & Prey, 2019). The lack of control over seeing these prompts, especially when associated with painful experiences, has also seen On This Day receiving negative publicity. I would counter it problematically also assuming that digital traces are memories when following Pickering and Keightley’s (2015) work on other media memory texts they function as vehicles for remembering. Of course, individuals can also choose to scroll back through their own profiles and archives to view old digital traces and may then decide to share these further either broadly to all their friends or followers, or to specific individuals or groups.

Prior to lockdown and social restrictions, the practice of sharing throwbacks (posts that are shared with the intention to look back and remember an event, moment or time period that took place in the past) was often framed as a way to express and re-experience joy and happiness or be a contemporary celebratory ‘gift’ with birthday posts. I want to suggest that there has been an increase in the sharing of throwbacks and re-engagement with digital traces in the past during this time. This is exemplified by Ellen who in a follow-up interview comments “I probably would be more likely whilst in lockdown to share or reshare things on On This Day than I would normally, because there’s no alternative. There’s not like a- I’m not doing anything here now. So it’s quite nice to be reflective and sort of like, it feels like it’s a reminder that things might be, things have been happen in different. So that’s quite nice to see. That’s what’s happening a year ago and in a year’s time that could be happening again.” The contrast painted between now and then is echoed by other participants. Ellen considers sharing what happened On This Day a year ago is due to the relative lack of activity in the present that could be posted about. However, she also suggests recalling these memories is an act of hope for the future, which differs from other responses to viewing these traces of the past.

Participants often use throwbacks and memory product function as well as uploading photos pre-pandemic to express a sense of loss. Sharing may be tinged with sadness and longing for what was: the normality of the past and in particular, spending time with friends. Chloe describes looking at On This Day as “it’s been horrible. It’s been nice to have memories and a bit of an escapism and like remember good times, but it’s also been like oh my gosh like I haven’t seen that person in so long. Don’t know when I’m going to see them again.”

Similarly, this entanglement of happiness of memories and sadness over the loss of future memories connected to an algorithmic resurfacing of the past is alluded to by Ava: “I was this time last year in Switzerland with my family. And a On This Day came up. And I was meant to be there with my best friend this week last week and I was kind of like, oh, that sucks and so slightly when they come up you kind of remember- yeah, in a way you’re like all like I’m missing out on this and like, like I’m cooped up inside. But last year, I was out doing fun things.”

Sadly, during this time Chloe also experienced the loss of two loved ones including her nan. The day after she passed away, she shares six stories, which span temporally from a baby photo to “the last time I ever held her hand”, which is time-stamped.  12 days later she shares a post containing five images, which she explains during a follow up interview was the day of the virtual service. Again, throwbacks are part of how she chooses to share about this loss and remember her life. The selection of the images reinforce Abidin’s (2018) observations on digital eulogy photos in her ethnographic research on how young people experience grief and loss through networked technology. These posts showed the deceased “preferably looking their best, or encapsulating a particularly flattering or happy moment in their time together” (p. 169). They also all include the participant, often along with other family members, and so are centred on this relationship between her and her nan. Although her mourning is central, a sense of collective grief is communicated through the selection of image as well as use first-person plural pronouns, exemplified through part of her post caption “we said an official goodbye to one of the best today”. This official goodbye took place during the conditions of lockdown and tight restrictions around funerals including social distancing measures and only immediate family members allowed to attend. Gibbs et al. (2015) concluded that #funeral posts were used to mark the experience of the funeral in the moment, extending the social ritual from those who were present to those who were not. Despite a lack of physical gathering, Chloe extends the experience of mourning virtually through participation in new social rituals related to funerals.

Coleman (2018) argues that the present temporality of social media is “concerned with ‘the now’, and that is stretched and condensed in various ways”. This is developed further in her examination of how individuals manage, experience and produce ‘the now’ (Coleman, 2020). ‘The now’ as its happening or as the immediate, ongoing or unfolding of the present. For these young women ‘the now’ is marked by absence, which is communicated, publicly seen rather than privately expressed. Of course, all digital memory work is performed in the present and so the present circumstances and understanding of the self will always influence the process of remembering. It is from the vantage point of lockdown and social restrictions that past digital traces are viewed from and so any memories sparked by them will be shaped by this ‘new normal’.