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Collective Memory in the Digital Age

Published on
9 Apr 2017
Written by
Taha Yasseri

We finished our project on Collective Memory in the Digital Age: Understanding “Forgetting” on the Internet last summer, but our last paper just came out on Science Advances last week.

The paper, titled “The memory remains: Understanding collective memory in the digital age” presents the results of our study on collective memory patterns based on Wikipedia viewership data of articles related to aviation accidents and incidents.

Combined with our previous paper on Dynamics and biases of online attention, published last year, we mainly claim two things:

Our short-term collective memory is really short; shorter than a week, and it’s biased, and our long-term memory is pretty long, about 45 years, also biased, nevertheless modellable!  And the Internet plays important roles in both observations and also helps us to quantify and study these patterns.

Of course, we have reported few other facts and observations related to our collective memory, but the main message was that.

We report that the most important factor in memory triggering patterns is the original impact of the past event measured by its average daily page views before the recent event occurred. That means that some past events are intrinsically more memorable and our memory of them are more easily triggered. Examples of such events are the crashes related to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Time separation between the two events also plays an important role. The closer in time the two events are, the stronger coupling between them; and when the time separation exceeds 45 years, it becomes very unlikely that the recent event triggers any memory of the past event.

The similarity between the two events has turned out to be another important factor; This happens in the case of the Iran Air flight 655 shot down by a US navy guided missile in 1988, which was not generally well remembered but far more attention was paid to it when the Malaysia Airlines 17 flight was hit by a missile over Ukraine in 2014.

3 - press_fig-1

Page-view statistics of three recent flights (2015) and their effects on the page-views of past events from 2014, and events from 1995 to 2000. The recent events cause an increase in the viewership of some of the past events.

Read the article here, the abstract says:

Recently developed information communication technologies, particularly the Internet, have affected how we, both as individuals and as a society, create, store, and recall information. The Internet also provides us with a great opportunity to study memory using transactional large-scale data in a quantitative framework similar to the practice in natural sciences. We make use of online data by analyzing viewership statistics of Wikipedia articles on aircraft crashes. We study the relation between recent events and past events and particularly focus on understanding memory-triggering patterns. We devise a quantitative model that explains the flow of viewership from a current event to past events based on similarity in time, geography, topic, and the hyperlink structure of Wikipedia articles. We show that, on average, the secondary flow of attention to past events generated by these remembering processes is larger than the primary attention flow to the current event. We report these previously unknown cascading effects.

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