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The recent Facebook scandal highlighted that personal information previously posted online can be used against us. The majority of people are concerned with how their data will be used but few contemplate permanently deleting their Facebook accounts.

Considering the potential major negative consequences of allowing personal information to remain online, why do people find it so hard to delete Facebook? One explanation is that rather than just being a social networking site, Facebook is a tool we rely on to organise and rehearse our memories.

How memory works

Our memory allows us to perceive, acquire, understand, retain and recall information from experiences. When trying to understand how memory functions, it is helpful to simplify memory into three stages: sensory memory, short-term memory and long-term memory.

Sensory memory allows us to perceive information around us. This is what we hear, feel, smell, and see. The traffic in the background, the feel of the fabric of your shirt against your back, the light’s reflection on the screen as you read this article. Most of this information is largely experienced unconsciously. It is only the information that we pay attention to that makes it to the next stage — our short-term memory.

Short-term memory allows us to acquire information to help us understand what we perceive. Is the information important? Can we use other stored information to make sense of it? For example, reading comprehension is only possible because we are able to remember a string of words in a sentence. Short-term memory, however, has limited capacity. Most of the information in our short-term memory is quickly forgotten. Only the information that we judge as important or that we make an effort to recall makes it to long-term memory. 

In this final stage of memory, information can be remembered for hours, weeks, months or years. Yet, transferring information to long-term memory is often time consuming and laborious. Information needs to be carefully organised. This entails logical filing with other stored information that is consistent with our identity, goals and framework of how the world works. It takes association, practice, rehearsal and repetition. The better information is organised and the more it is rehearsed or repeated, the more likely it is to be stored in long-term memory.

Coping with technology information overload

In today’s technological age we come across a vast amount of information. We scroll through news headlines, quizzes, games, marketing info, updates and photos. We pay attention to much of the information we encounter because chosen social networks, selected threads and individually tailored algorithms ensure we are inundated with information that aligns with our interests. We then post our own photos and updates from nights out, family events, holidays and other special experiences.

Arguably, our attention is more strained and exhausted than ever before. We suffer from information overload. We want to remember the wide array of material we have attended to, but our mental capabilities cannot cope. This is because our short-term memory has limited capacity and transferring information to our long-term memory takes time and work. If we want to make our online time productive, we need to find mental shortcuts on how to retain the information we come across.

Facebook works like an external memory storage drive

Facebook has presented an optimal solution to our limited cognitive abilities. In addition to being a social networking website, it functions as a supportive external drive for our long-term memory. With Facebook, we can transfer information from our short-term memory to an online storage system so we can attend to new information. It offers a neat organisational system for new information and provides the needed rehearsal. This reduces the cognitive load on our long-term memory.

Facebook has taken on the role of steward for our memory. It organises memories in a clear, logical way. Events and posts are chronologically ordered in "Life Events". Rather than scrolling through the thousands of photos that we have accumulated on our iPhones, Facebook highlights events and information we find most important. Posts are concisely categorised across different albums and themes. Facebook coordinates our memories in ways that align with our public identity construction, goals and social circles. Interests and preferences are kept track of through our likes, dislikes and shares. Our memories are perfectly arranged under short snappy captions in elaborate filtered sets and collages.  

Facebook then provides rehearsal for our memories. We can review our posts, check-ins and photos from our Facebook profile whenever we like, but Facebook has also decreased the need for this manual task. We are reminded of our memories by friends and colleagues who tag us in posts and shares. Fond memories now appear spontaneously through Facebook features such as “On this Day”, “Friendship Anniversaries” and “Year in Review”. These carefully constructed features provide continual repetition and rehearsal supporting our long-term memory storage.

In summary, Facebook has implemented our memory strategies. We depend on Facebook because we have relinquished some of our own memory capabilities so that we can attend to new information. The importance of Facebook – and possibly the reason for its continued popularity – is the clever way it supplements and assists our memory functions. This is one of the reasons we find it so hard to delete Facebook.

Dr Misia Temler is a forensic psychologist and project coordinator of Not Guilty, The Sydney Exoneration Project at the University of Sydney. You can follow Misia at @MisiaTemler.

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