Memory for Facebook posts better than that of faces and books

February, 2013

Gossipy content and informal language may lie behind people's better recall of Facebook posts compared to memory for human faces or sentences from books.

Online social networking, such as Facebook, is hugely popular. A series of experiments has explored the intriguing question of whether our memories are particularly ‘tuned’ to remember the sort of information shared on such sites.

The first experiment involved 32 college students (27 female), who were asked to study either 100 randomly chosen Facebook posts, or 100 sentences randomly chosen from books on Amazon. After the study period (which involved each sentence being presented for 3 seconds), the students were given a self-paced recognition test, in which the 100 study sentences were mixed with another 100 sentences from the same source, with participants responding with a number expressing their confidence that they had (or had not) seen the sentence before (e.g., ‘1’ would indicate they were completely confident that they hadn’t seen it before, ‘20’ that they were totally confident that they had).

Recognition of Facebook posts was significantly better than recognition of sentences from books (an average of 85% correct vs 76%). The ‘Facebook advantage’ remained even when only posts with more normal surface-level characteristics were analyzed (i.e., all posts containing irregularities of spelling and typography were removed).

In the next experiment, involving 16 students (11 female), Facebook posts (a new set) were compared with neutral faces. Again, memory for Facebook posts was substantially better than that for faces. This is quite remarkable, since humans have a particular expertise for faces and tend to score highly on recognition tests for them.

One advantage the Facebook posts might have is in eliciting social thinking. The researchers attempted to test this by comparing the learning achieved when people were asked to count the words of each sentence or post, against the learning achieved when they were asked to think of someone they knew (real or fictional) who could have composed such a sentence / post. This experiment involved 64 students (41 female).

The deeper encoding encouraged by the latter strategy did improve memory for the texts, but it did so equally. The fact that it helped Facebook posts as much as it did book sentences argues against the idea that the Facebook advantage rests on social elaboration (because if so, encouraging them to be socially elaborated would have little extra effect).

Another advantage the Facebook posts might have over book sentences is that they were generally complete in themselves, making sense in a way that randomly chosen sentences from books would not. Other possibilities have to do with the gossipy nature of Facebook posts, and the informal language used. To test these theories, 180 students (138 female) were shown text from two CNN twitter feeds: Breaking News and Entertainment News. Texts included headlines, sentences, and comments.

Texts from Entertainment News were remembered significantly better than those from Breaking News (supporting the gossip advantage). Headlines were remembered significantly better than random sentences (supporting the completeness argument), but comments were remembered best of all (supporting the informality theory) — although the benefit of comments over headlines was much greater for Breaking News than Entertainment News (perhaps reflecting the effort the Entertainment News people put into making catchy headlines?).

It seems then, that three factors contribute to the greater memorability of Facebook posts: the completeness of ideas; the gossipy content; the casually generated language.

You’ll have noticed I made a special point of noting the gender imbalance in the participant pools. Given gender differences in language and social interaction, it’s a shame that the participants were so heavily skewed, and I would like this replicated with males before generalizing. However, the evidence for the advantage of more informal language is, at least, less likely to be skewed by gender.


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