Expert Commentary

Major memory for microblogs

2013 study from the University of California, San Diego, the University of Scranton and the University of Warwick (UK) published in Memory and Cognition on how microblog content is read and remembered.


Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites enable users to share a wide range of information, ranging from the Economist’s latest economic data to musings on fashion, food and more. While some users are uneasy about the type of information shared online and how it is perceived, compelling some them to take a break, others have no such reservations. But given the ephemeral nature of much of what’s shared online, it’s unclear how much of it is actually memorable and significant for users.

A 2013 study published in Memory and Cognition, “Major Memory for Microblogs,” explores the how microblog content is read and remembered. The study involved three experiments to assess how well Facebook posts are remembered compared to other types of cognitive information, and the extent to which remembering is enhanced by a perceived social connection or post content. The researchers were based at the University of California, San Diego; the University of Scranton; and the University of Warwick (UK). The subjects were all students at UC San Diego, and the majority were women.

Study findings include:

  • The first experiment asked participants to study either Facebook posts or random phrases from books, then tested their level of recall. Participants assigned Facebook content remembered more content and were more confident in the accuracy of their assessments than those who were assigned book phrases.
  • A variation of the first experiment tested recall based on either content from participants’ own Facebook accounts or images of faces. The researchers found that Facebook content was more memorable than images.
  • The second experiment asked participants to mentally link a randomly assigned Facebook post or book phrase to an individual they knew (for example, “This is something my friend Hank would write”). Subsequent testing showed that recall rates for both types of content improved, suggesting that “the memorability of Facebook posts in our experiment was not simply due to their engendering natural social elaboration.”
  • The third experiment asked participants to read sentences, headlines or reader comments from CNN articles on either breaking news or entertainment news. Entertainment news in all three forms was found to be more memorable than breaking news.
  • Reader comments were remembered “exceptionally well” researchers found, leading them to suggest that the conceptual completeness of a post, more informal language conventions, and gossipy nature of the content all contribute to memorability.
  • “Word [count] is unlikely to be an explanation for the memorability of sentences, because the best remembered stimuli were intermediate in length.” Uncommon words were remembered more frequently than more common ones.
  • “Especially memorable Facebook posts and reader comments, generated by ordinary people, may be far closer than professionally crafted sentences to tapping into the basic language capacities of our minds… Some sentences — and, most likely, those without careful editing, polishing, and perfecting — are naturally more ‘mind-ready.’”

The researchers propose that the language of social-networking sites and microblogs has shifted contemporary expectations for writing from formal conventions toward increased spontaneity.

Tags: cognition, technology, Facebook

About The Author