Published January 15, 2013
The fleeting status updates you post on Facebook might leave a more lasting impression than you think. New research shows that people are much more likely to remember the text from Facebook posts than human faces and text from books.
"Facebook is updated roughly 30 million times an hour so it's easy to dismiss it as full of mundane, trivial bits of information that we will instantly forget as soon as we read them," researcher Laura Mickes, a visiting scholar at UC San Diego and a senior research fellow at the University of Warwick in England, said in a statement. "But our study turns that view on its head, and by doing so gives us a really useful glimpse into the kinds of information we're hardwired to remember."
For the study, Mickes and her colleagues set up a memory test in which participants were shown 200 sentences for three seconds each on a computer screen. Half of the lines were taken from anonymized Facebook updates (for example, "The library is a place to study, not to talk on your phone" and "My math professor told me that I was one of his brightest students"), and the other sentences were pulled from recently published books, such as, "My throat was burning from screaming so loudly" and "Underneath the mass of facial hair beamed a large smile." All the selections were similar in length, and the Facebook posts were taken out of the context of the social media site — stripped of accompanying links, images and irregularities like emoticons or multiple exclamation points.
The participants were then shown 200 sentences (100 of which they had seen before) and instructed to indentify which ones they recognized. The researchers found that the participants' memory was about one-and-a-half times stronger for Facebook posts than for book sentences.
The experiment was then tweaked, with sentences from books replaced with pictures of faces. Participants' memory for Facebook posts was nearly two-and-a-half times as strong as for faces, the researchers said. [5 Intersting Facts About Your Memory]
"We were really surprised when we saw just how much stronger memory for Facebook posts was compared to other types of stimuli," Mickes said. "These kinds of gaps in performance are on a scale similar to the differences between amnesiacs and people with healthy memory."
The researchers speculate that Facebook status updates are so memorable because they are written in "mind ready" formats — they're spontaneous and closer to natural speech than the polished, edited text of books. That could explain why the researchers also found similar levels of memorability for comments posted under online news articles, compared with headlines and text from the articles.
"One could view the past five thousand years of painstaking, careful writing as the anomaly," UC San Diego psychology professor Nicholas Christenfeld, who was involved in the study, said in a statement. "Modern technologies allow written language to return more closely to the casual, personal style of pre-literate communication. And this is the style that resonates, and is remembered."
But the casual nature of Facebook status updating naturally lends itself to some ill-advised posts. The results suggest that Facebook users should be more careful about what they publish on the site, as a social faux pas or offensive rant might not be so easily forgotten. [6 Personal Secrets Your Facebook Profile Isn't Keeping]
The ubiquitous Facebook status update has become a focal point for researchers trying to uncover the real-life social motivations that drive people's activity on the social media site. A study published last month found that college students who posted more status updates than they normally did over the course of a week felt less lonely, even if no one "Liked" or commented on their posts. That research, detailed in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, might help explain what compels people to constantly update their status. However, research out last year suggested Facebooking can hurt one's self-esteem.
The new study appears this month in the journal Memory & Cognition.
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