The Weird Thing About Facebook: Status Updates Are The Most Memorable Writing You Do

Three months from now, nobody will remember what you wrote in that email, but they’ll definitely recall your status update about your cat.

If you’re a Facebook skeptic and believe that most status updates are over-sharey and show-offy (babies, weddings, the aftermath of too much beer), you are not wrong. But whether inane or informative, there’s something interesting about Facebook status updates: According to a new study, we are one and a half times more likely to remember them than any other form of written language. In fact, we remember the random online blathering of friends and family two and a half times more consistently than we remember faces. These are the unequivocal findings of "Major Memory in Microblogs," a new study from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Warwick.

"It’s not that you can remember the Facebook posts a little better—you can remember them a lot better," says study co-author Dr. Laura Mickes, who calls the findings "jaw-dropping."

Consider this. The gaps in performance between Facebook recall and literature recall are on a scale similar to the difference between amnesiacs and people with healthy memory. To clarify, Dr. Mickes isn’t talking about the TV amnesiac who wakes up from a bump on the head and can’t remember his wife; she means the guy who can’t generate any new memories, not even the conversation he had five minutes ago.

The Study

Participants were first shown 100 random phrases of similar length, both from Facebook status updates and from published literature. The phrases were presented as black text on a white background and were stripped of their context. The literature included everything from snappy dialogue, to first person narration, to non-fiction. Later in the experiment, participants were then shown 100 more phrases and asked which had appeared in the previous part of the study.

The use of emoticons, misspellings, and poor grammar had no impact on memorability. And since participants had no idea they were even looking at Facebook posts, Mickes says there was no way for them to think, "‘Oh, Jen would definitely write something like that,’ which could help prompt memory." Nor were the Facebook posts funnier or more emotional than the published literature.

Mickes also ran a study examining memorability between highbrow literature, lowbrow literature, and Facebook. Phrases from lowbrow literature (romance novels or thrillers) weren’t anymore memorable than the highbrow literature. And, yet again, Facebook posts were remembered best of all.

An Editor’s Nightmare

Facebook posts, as well as Twitter posts, are so memorable because they are what Mickes calls "mind ready": unedited and unfiltered. They’re off-the-cuff remarks and thoughts. These words, which flow quickly and easily from your friend’s mind onto his Facebook page, are then absorbed by you with similar ease. But is it really true that to make people remember what you write, you should simply spew?

Dr. Mickes is now working with a psychologist and a language expert to understand the science of mind readiness: Exactly why are social media posts so effective? What is it about the content, the language patterns, the vocabulary, and the word placement, that makes for memorable posts? It’s only a matter of time before somebody creates an algorithm that optimizes microblog memorability. Still, there’s something strange, and even ironic, about using a formula to generate phrases that feel off the cuff.

Master Manipulators or Good Communicators?

Harnessing effective microblogging techniques is certainly useful in many fields, from advertising, to political campaigns, to education, to journalism. Right now, not even the most gossipy news headlines have the same memorability rates as Facebook and Twitter posts. Mickes points to Anthony Weiner as a prime example of what effects microblogs can have in fields such as politics. (Of course, it’s the picture, not the words, that everyone remembers. But you get the point.)

Ultimately, this study into social media and memory is about language: how we use words and what we want those words to do. Mickes says that professors can embrace Facebook and Twitter to engage with their students in new ways. But language isn’t just about imparting information; it’s about swaying opinion. In 1946, in an essay titled "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell explained that taking control of propagandistic political slogans—the microblogs of that era—was the only way to be independent thinkers. Fortunately, that degree of microblog manipulation isn’t here yet. And, really, what harm can come from remembering everything your Facebook friends ever wrote about their cats?

[Images: Flickr users 55Laney69, George Eastman House, Tom Klaver, and Graham]

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  • AKLehmann

    Hmmm. Did i miss it or are FB posts memorable because they accompany an image of the writer? I don't FB because I value privacy, but when I do see others microblogging, I notice that images take up at least 50% of the screen - mobile or desktop. Does this study say anything about how status updates could be viewed as "captions"?

  • LaurenNisbet

    This is really interesting and I think it tells us a lot about human nature - the study supports the idea that we're more likely to remember content with which we have some kind of personal connection. When we associate off the cuff comments with people we know well or people we have met in passing they acquire more meaning. This info could be very valuable for the advertising / marketing world.

    The challenge now is trying to get the wide world of facebook users to share status updates / comments worth remembering. 

  • Stephanie Madrid

    "Ultimately, this study into social media and memory is about language: how we use words and what we want those words to do. Mickes says that professors can embrace Facebook and Twitter to engage with their students in new ways." 

    I definitely agree! I have many media studies/film professors who would greatly benefit from engaging us via social media. Talking about examples within social media is great, but being part of it and learning from it (with the students) would be ideal. I will have to share this with my professors!

  • Jason Love

    This is very interesting. I wish I could learn more about the specifics of the experiment & to see exact numbers.

  • Broverip

     Me too.  Specifically, I want to know the prior reading habits of the the study subjects.  If the subjects are Facebook and Twitter addicts, their response to update texts may be a learned response rather than a hardwired one.

    Just about every writer/reader I know that has gotten hooked on the microblogs has noticed a change in their own reading comprehension.  If readers were shown the text of this study 15 years ago, would they have gotten the same results?

  • Andrew Leonard

    Interesting. I wonder if this has to do with the fact that deliberate/academic/literary writing is usually constructed to contain a lot of information in a given space, whereas there probably aren't as many factual bits in an equal length of Facebook fodder.

  • MyLoudSpeakerDotCa

    I think that could be it. However, I would argue that longer or more in-depth pieces of writing have contexts and themes (not specific sentences) that would stick with a person longer than specific lines of Facebook text.