Last week my conclusion was that it is not our memories that make our personal identities but that experiences do (at least, for a part, for elsewhere I have shown that our bodily make-up is also important). However, experiences are not independent of memories: How we experience an event we go through or what we are doing is determined also by how we experienced such events in the past or how we remember what we did before. What we think of a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony depends not only on the performance we hear now but also on what we remember of performances of the same symphony in the past. And after we have heard the symphony several times, maybe we can hum even parts of the melody: When we recall something we did or experienced in the past, we get a better retention of it. When we tell others about what we experienced or when we reread our diary notes, we keep what we lived through better in the mind. On the other hand, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat. One important way for reviving memories is looking at old photos. When we see them again, usually we know what we did then, and in case we have taken the photos ourselves, we can often also tell how we have taken them and where we stood. However, we tend to forget what we don’t repeat by such artificial means or otherwise. What is not in a photo, gradually vanishes from the memory. What is in a photo is highlighted and determines the recollection of the doing or event.
In these days of the internet we share our life experiences increasingly via the social media. Of course, we leave out what we don’t want to share and we share only what we see as highlights or worth to mention. Therefore, as Julia Shaw says in her book on memory quoted last week: “remembering life events through social media is going to enhance memories for those particular events” (pp. 213-4). However, publishing life events in the social media is not a neutral affair. As said, we don’t share everything, but we select. Moreover we present what we present there in a certain way: We don’t share how we are but how we want to be seen. We don’t present in social media our selves but our better selves and our improved selves, on purpose or unconsciously. But since bringing back memories is selective, especially when it happens with artificial means, like photos, in fact we get a distortion of reality. This is the more so, when we bring back memories via what we have uploaded in the social media. This has important consequences for the self-image. As Shaw says, “[w]hat is different about social media is that the prompts are being selected from your online persona so they already represent a distorted, social media appropriate, version of your life. This amounts to a double distortion – distorting the memory in your brain with a previously distorted memory from your online persona.” Even if we originally knew that we are not the way as presented in the social media, in the end we tend to believe in it.“By having the social media dictate which experiences count as the most meaningful in our lives”, so Shaw goes on, “it is potentially culling the memories that are considered less shareable. Simultaneously it is reinforcing the memories collectively chosen as the most likeable, potentially making some memories seem more meaningful and memorable than they originally were. Both of these are problematic processes that can distort our personal reality.” (p. 215) When this happens it is no longer that we shape ourselves in the social media but that the social media shape us. Then it’s the social media that shape our personalities, even if these personalities are distorted, and by that they shape our personal identities.