Major memory for microblogs
Laura Mickes &Ryan S. Darby &Vivian Hwe &
Daniel Bajic &Jill A. Warker &Christine R. Harris &
Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld
#Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2013
Abstract Online social networking is vastly popular and
permits its members to post their thoughts as microblogs, an
opportunity that people exploit, on Facebook alone, over 30
million times an hour. Such trivial ephemera, one might
think, should vanish quickly from memory; conversely, they
may comprise the sort of information that our memories are
tuned to recognize, if that which we readily generate, we
also readily store. In the first two experiments, participants’
memory for Facebook posts was found to be strikingly
stronger than their memory for human faces or sentences
from books—a magnitude comparable to the difference in
memory strength between amnesics and healthy controls.
The second experiment suggested that this difference is not
due to Facebook posts spontaneously generating social
elaboration, because memory for posts is enhanced as much
by adding social elaboration as is memory for book senten-
ces. Our final experiment, using headlines, sentences, and
reader comments from articles, suggested that the remark-
able memory for microblogs is also not due to their com-
pleteness or simply their topic, but may be a more general
phenomenon of their being the largely spontaneous and
natural emanations of the human mind.
Keywords Memory .Microblog .Facebook .
Levels of processing
The online world permits its citizens to post their every
thought as blogs, Facebook status updates, forum comments,
and the like. Not every such posting is extraordinarily inter-
esting; indeed, Facebook posts have been described as “navel-
gazing ... spam”(Griggs, 2009). However mundane, or even
inane, such sharing may be, it is also enormously popular. On
Facebook alone, people collectively post over thirty million
times an hour (Facebook.com, 2011). This popularity suggests
that something about such “microblogging”resonates with
human nature. We explored this question in a series of experi-
ments examining the memorability of microblog posts. If
microblogs are as vacuous as some propose, they should
vanish quickly from one’s mind. On the other hand, as such
outputs represent the natural, essentially unfiltered, emana-
tions of human minds, perhaps they also have a special place
there as input. The success of Facebook, after all, depends not
just on people’s willingness to post their thoughts, but also on
their willingness to read those posts.
Particular sorts of information may have a privileged
place in memory. Nairne and Pandeirada (2010) suggested
that our memory systems developed to solve adaptive prob-
lems and that we should see enhanced memory in tasks that
tap into the types of issues confronted in our ancestral past.
Nairne and colleagues have shown, for example, better
memory for information that would have been related to
survival needs (Nairne, Pandeirada, & Thompson, 2008;
Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007; see also Kang,
McDermott, & Cohen, 2008), and social information could
likewise be privileged because of our ancestral reliance on
group living. Indeed, recently Klein, Cosmides, Gangi,
Jackson, and Tooby (2009) described memory as “an adap-
tive tool for sociality”(p. 284). The research on social
memory thus far has focused on autobiographical memory
Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego,
La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA
R. S. Darby :V. Hwe :D. Bajic :C. R. Harris :
N. J. S. Christenfeld
University of California, San Diego,
La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA
J. A. Warker
University of Scranton, Scranton, NJ, USA
L. Mickes (*)
Department of Psychology, University of Warwick,
Coventry CV4 AL7, UK
(e.g., birthdays; Merz, Wolf, & Hennig, 2010) or face–name
pairs (e.g., Takahashi et al., 2004). The popularity of micro-
blogging affords a way to investigate memory for the daily
details of social information.
Baumeister and Leary (1995) proposed that social be-
longingness is so essential in humans that it should be
considered a basic, innate motive. Humans are driven to
share their experiences with others—an inclination that
emerges early in development, with preverbal infants’use
of pointing and eye gaze in social interactions—and this
feature seems to separate us from even our ape cousins. This
need to express and share our experiences has been various-
ly documented (see Emery, 2000). Such views support the
popularity of Facebook posts and other microblogs and
suggest that, if receiving these communications is as much
a part of our nature as making them, these reports could be
In Experiment 1, we examined the strength of memory for
Facebook status updates (i.e., messages posted to friends).
We compared the memorability of such microblogs to that
for sentences from published books (Exp. 1a) and to the
memorability of human faces (Exp. 1b).
Participants Thirty-two University of California, San Diego
(UCSD) undergraduates (age: M021.00 years, SD 02.14;
27 female, five male) were randomly assigned to one of two
conditions, with half in the Facebook condition and half in
the book condition.
Materials Five undergraduate research assistants, who were
blind to the hypothesis, gathered 200 posts written by
others (from, collectively, over 3,000 friends) from their
own Facebook feeds. Each post was the most current for
its author, and none was connected with games, links, or
photos (see the Appendix for examples).
A total of 200 sentences were also selected from
books on amazon.com, using the “Last 30 days”option
under the “New Releases”section, including both fic-
tion and nonfiction. For each of these books for which
the “Look Inside”feature was available, we used the
“Surprise Me!”option, and within that random page, a
single sentence was randomly selected. Sentences with
quotations, single-word sentences, and sentences that
contained more than 25 words were not selected (see
the Appendix for examples).
Of the 200 stimuli in each condition, 100 were randomly
selected as targets for each participant to memorize during the
study phase. The other 100 were reserved as lures for the testing
phase, to assess whether the participants could identify stimuli
they had seen before: (a different combination of targets and
lures per participant). Instructions and stimuli were displayed
via E-Prime (Psychology Software Tools Inc., Sharpsburg, PA;
www.pstnet.com) on a 22-in. monitor in 18-point Courier font.
Procedure The participants were informed from the outset
that they were participating in a memory experiment. After a
practice trial, the study phase began. During study, 100
targets were individually presented for 3,000 ms, followed
by a blank-screen interstimulus interval (ISI) of 250 ms.
Immediately after the study phase, participants took a self-
paced recognition test that consisted of the 100 targets
randomly intermixed with 100 lures. Participants indicated
their confidence that each post had been previously seen
(old) or not previously seen (new) on the study list, using a
20-point rating scale that is shown in Fig. 1(Mickes,
Wixted, & Wais, 2007). A keypress of “1”indicated that
they were 100 % certain that the post had not appeared in
the study list, and a keypress of “20”represented that they
were 100 % confident that an item had appeared. Thus, a
correct response for a lure would be between 1 and 10, and a
correct response for a target would be between 11 and 20.
Participants in the Facebook condition responded generally
with the highest levels of confidence and were highly accu-
rate. The average d' (anunbiasedmeasureofmemory
strength) in the Facebook condition (M02.48, SD 0
0.69) was significantly greater than the average d' in the
book sentence condition (M01.72, SD 00.54), t(30) 0
3.47, p0.002. The percent correct measure (calculated as
the number of hits plus correct rejections, divided by 200
trials), while potentially biased (Macmillan & Creelman,
2005), is intuitively appealing, and it reveals exactly the
same story: significantly greater memory for Facebook posts
(M085 %, SD 07.2) than for sentences from books (M0
76 %, SD 06.2), t(30) 03.72, p0.001.
Fig. 1 Confidence rating scale used in the experiments. A response of
1 indicated that the participant was 100 % certain that an item had not
appeared during the study phase, and a response of 20 indicated that he
or she was 100 % certain that an item had appeared. The different font
sizes visually represent the levels of confidence. This scale was pre-
sented for each test item in the experiments
To generate the receiver-operating characteristic (ROC)
plot, hit and false alarm rate pairs were computed for each
level of confidence. For example, in the Facebook condi-
tion, 56 % of the targets and 6 % of the lures received a
confidence rating of 20 (i.e., a hit rate of 56 % and false
alarm rate of 6 % for ratings of 20). Next, another hit and
false alarm rate pair was obtained by computing the percen-
tages of targets and lures that received ratings of 19 and 20.
The ratings were cumulated in this manner until we had
generated 19 separate hit and false alarm rate pairs, which
are plotted in the ROC. The farther the operating points that
make up the ROC curve are from the diagonal, or “chance”
line (i.e., the closer they are to the upper left corner), the
greater the discriminability between targets and lures
(Macmillan & Creelman, 2005). Figure 2displays the
ROC data, and it clearly illustrates that individuals in the
Facebook condition discriminated targets from lures much
more easily than did those in the book sentence condition.
Before investigating deeper conceptual explanations for
the advantage that Facebook posts seem to enjoy, we ruled
out various more superficial possibilities. First, we tested
whether the length of the post or sentence was a critical
factor. The Facebook posts (M011.49, SD 06.54) had
significantly, albeit slightly, more words than the book sen-
tences (M010.27, SD 04.00), t(199) 06.14, p< .001. To
adjust for this, we did a median split on the numbers of
words for the Facebook posts and book sentences (median 0
10.00 for both), and then compared the d' scores for the shorter
Facebook posts and the longer sentences. The average d' for
the Facebook posts (M02.67, SD 00.98), was still signifi-
cantly higher than that for the book sentences (M01.77,
SD 00.92), t(102) 06.86, p< .001, even with the length
confound reversed, suggesting that the Facebook posts’
advantage was not due to length.
Another possibility is that Facebook posts may capitalize
on perceptual matching of surface-level differences (e.g.,
Mandler, 1979), since they are littered with irregular typog-
raphy. To test this, we separated posts that contained emo-
ticons, multiple exclamation points, all letters capitalized, or
multiple, repeated letters (e.g., “Del Mar Opening Day is on
my birthday this year!!! :) Hellooo HATS”) from posts that
did not. A total of 86 posts did not include any of these
components. Memory was still significantly higher for these
orthographically regular posts (d':M02.57, SD 01.18)
than for the book sentences (d':M01.95, SD 01.07),
t(284) 04.32, p< .001.
Memory was substantially higher for Facebook posts than for
book sentences. Explanations for this advantage that were
based merely on surface-level differences were ruled out:
The difference was not due to posts containing emoticons,
unique characters, or many or few words; the advantage per-
sisted when all such posts were removed. The posts culled
from Facebook showed remarkable memorability; memory for
book sentences, on the other hand, reflected more typical
memory performance. For example, the memory for sentences
found here seems similar to results reported by Belmore (1982)
using similar recognition tests for sentences with roughly the
same number of targets and lures as in our experiment.
Clearly participants recognized Facebook posts better
than ordinary published sentences. To get a further sense
of the memorability of such posts, we next compared them
to memory for faces. A region of the brain, the fusiform face
area, is dedicated to face processing (e.g., Kanwisher,
McDermott, & Chun, 1997), suggesting that the brain is
specially designed to process and store facial information.
While many factors can influence the memorability of a set
of faces, faces nonetheless can provide some calibration for
the magnitude of Facebook’s memorability, measuring
whether memory for Facebook posts is particularly strong
or memory for sentences from books is particularly weak. In
Experiment 1b, accordingly, participants completed a mem-
ory task for faces and for Facebook posts.
Fig. 2 Group receiver-operating characteristic (ROC) data for the
Facebook posts and book sentences from Experiment 1a. The dashed
line represents chance performance
The difference in d's between short (M02.35, SD 01.41) and long
(M02.67, SD 00.98) Facebook posts was marginally significant, t
(198) 01.83, p0.057. The same analysis yielded opposite results for
the book sentences: Memory was significantly better, as measured by
d', for short book sentences (M02.15, SD 01.18) than for long book
sentences (M01.77, SD 00.92), t(198) 02.60, p0.010. Neither
effect, of course, can account for the superior memory for Facebook
posts relative to book sentences.
Participants Sixteen UCSD undergraduates (age: M0
20.25 years, SD 01.34; 11 female, five male) partici-
pated for course credit.
Materials Four undergraduate assistants used their own
Facebook accounts to find a new sample of 200 posts by
(see the Appendix). Using a new set of Facebook
posts allowed an independent replication of their memora-
bility. For the face memory task, 200 neutral faces (frontal
view only) were selected from the Color FERET database
(http://face.nist.gov/colorferet/), with 100 of each stimulus
type randomly chosen to be targets and 100 to be lures (a
different combination of targets and lures per participant).
Procedure The procedure was identical to that of
Experiment 1a, with two changes: Faces were used instead
of book sentences, and a within-subjects rather than
between-subjects design was used. Task order was counter-
balanced; half of the participants completed the face mem-
ory task first, and half completed the Facebook memory task
first. Again, the presentation time for each target was
3,000 ms, with a 250-ms ISI. Immediately after the study
phase, participants took a self-paced recognition test that
consisted of 100 targets randomly intermixed with 100
lures, shown one at a time, and the participants provided
old/new responses on a 20-point rating scale.
We found no order effects, so the data from the two orders
were combined for analyses. Accuracy was much higher for
Facebook posts than for faces (d':M02.51, SD 00.37, vs.
M00.95, SD 00.67, respectively), t(15) 011.70,
p< .001. Figure 3shows the ROC data, and as in
Experiment 1a, participants easily discriminated targets
from lures when the stimuli were Facebook posts. Facebook
posts are particularly memorable as compared to faces.
Experiment 1b further strengthened the idea that memory
for these microblog posts is remarkable, with Facebook
beating both faces and books. As a frame of reference,
across multiple memory tests for lists of words (Manns,
Hopkins, Reed, Kitchener, & Squire, 2003), hippocampally
damaged amnesic individuals showed an average d' of 0.4,
and controls 1.5, a difference of 1.1. Averaging across our
experiments, books and faces had a d' of 1.3, and Facebook
ad' of 2.5, a difference of 1.2. Thus, Facebook’s advantage
over books and faces is on the same scale as the advantage
of controls over amnesics.
While several possible mechanisms for the memory
strength of Facebook posts have been ruled out, a number
of explanations remain. The posts may naturally elicit social
thinking and lead to stronger encoding of the posts, whereas
sentences written by professional authors and unknown
neutral faces may be less likely to naturally elicit such
encoding-enhancing elaboration. The more gossipy nature
of the Facebook posts may have been inherently more
interesting to participants and contributed to this social
elaboration (Schiefele & Krapp, 1996). In addition, the
Facebook posts may be particularly memorable because
they are complete in and of themselves, whereas the book
sentences, chosen randomly and out of context, need not
have been so.
Another possible explanation is that the relatively unfil-
tered and spontaneous production of one person’s mind is
just the sort of thing that is readily stored in another’s mind.
The formality and complexity of well-considered and edited
language, while it may have many advantages in accuracy,
efficiency, and even beauty, may not be more readily stored.
That is, information that people generate easily and natural-
ly may be information that is easily and naturally remem-
bered. Such an explanation is not entirely distinct from the
The Facebook posts (from Exp. 1b) were chosen to have a range of
activities, emotions, and writing styles. The additional selection criteria
made no difference to the memorability, which almost exactly matched
that observed in Experiment 1a.
Fig. 3 Group receiver-operating characteristic (ROC) data for the
Facebook posts and faces from Experiment 1b. The dashed line repre-
sents chance performance
gossip notion, since reports of the personal doings of other
people may be closer to our natural speech than are more
arcane and abstract reports. Two follow-up experiments
explored these explanations for the superiority of
Facebook posts. In the first, we examined whether sponta-
neous social elaboration is the secret to Facebook’s success,
at least in the memorability of its posts, by testing whether
directed social elaboration impacts memory less for
Facebook posts than for other sentences. The second was
designed to compare news sentences to news headlines and
to readers’comments to explore the roles of content and
completeness in memorability.
Facebook posts may naturally elicit social thinking (e.g.,
“that is something my friend Emily would post”), while
published sentences from books may be much less likely
to elicit such elaboration. We tested whether such elabora-
tion underlies the Facebook effect by manipulating the level
of processing in an incidental learning task (e.g., Craik &
Lockhart, 1972; Nairne et al., 2008). A shallow-encoding
condition required participants to count the words of each
sentence or post. A deep-encoding condition required par-
ticipants to think of someone whom they knew (personally
or a fictional character) who could have composed each post
or sentence. If people spontaneously elaborate Facebook
posts but not book sentences, the directions to elaborate
should have little memory-enhancing effect on the former
and a more profound effect on the latter. If, on the other
hand, the Facebook advantage is not due to social elabora-
tion, then adding it to each should have essentially equal
Participants Sixty-four UCSD undergraduates participated
for course credit (age: M020.34 years, SD 02.12;
41 female, 23 male). The participants were randomly
assigned to Facebook posts or book sentences, as well as
to either shallow or deep encoding.
Materials The Facebook posts and book sentences were
nearly the same as in Experiment 1a, but to control for
length, we used a subset of the book sentences and added
more, chosen in the same way (to return the total number to
200 sentences), so that the Facebook posts (M011.64, SD
06.77) would not have more words than the book sentences
(M011.21, SD 04.93), t(398)00.72, p0.47.
Procedure The experiment employed an incidental-learning
task with a 2×2 design (shallow vs. deep processing, and
book sentences vs. Facebook posts). Participants in the
shallow-encoding condition counted and entered the number
of words per Facebook post or book sentence. In the deep-
encoding condition, participants rated (on a 5-point scale,
from difficult to easy) the ease with which a Facebook post
or book sentence reminded them of something that someone
they know would write or say (e.g., themselves, a friend, a
family member, or a character in a movie or book). The
instructions were adapted from Nairne et al. (2008). After a
10-min distractor task (a game of Space Invaders), the
participants took a surprise recognition memory test on the
100 targets randomly intermixed with 100 lures.
In the deep-encoding groups, the average ratings of the
ease with which participants could think of a person
whowouldwriteasentence(M03.30, SD 00.42) or
post (M03.20, SD 00.64) were not significantly
different, t(15) 00.54, p0.595. In the shallow-
encoding groups, the numbers of words counted were
not significantly different for book sentences (M0
11.24, SD 00.42) and Facebook posts (M011.52,
SD 00.75); t(30) 01.33, p0.194
Figure 4shows the average d'sbystimulustypes.A2×2
ANOVA revealed a main effect of book sentences versus
Facebook posts, with, as before, Facebook posts being re-
membered much better, F(1, 60) 032.90, p<.001.There
was also the predicted, and large, main effect of encoding
type, with deep encoding resulting in better memorability, F
(1, 60) 0189.26, p< .001. There was no interaction between
stimulus type and encoding type, F(1, 60) 00.75, p0.390,
suggesting that adding the encoding instructions helped the
Facebook posts just as much as it helped the book sentences.
Fig. 4 Memory strength for Facebook posts and book sentences when
participants were instructed to do shallow or deep processing during
encoding in Experiment 2. The error bars represent standard errors of
If social elaboration were responsible for the memorability
of Facebook posts, one would expect that using socially
based deep encoding would equalize the d's for book sen-
tences and Facebook posts. However, the memory benefits
of Facebook posts and of social encoding were additive,
suggesting that the memorability of Facebook posts in our
experiment was not simply due to their engendering natural
social elaboration during encoding. Furthermore, the ratings
of ease of social elaboration did not suggest that the
Facebook posts enjoyed any obvious natural advantage
there. In the next experiment, we explored whether an item’s
content or completeness of ideas might account for the
To test the hypothesis that Facebook posts might be
advantaged because they are coherent and complete ideas,
we compared the memorability of sentences drawn from
CNN articles to the memorability of the headlines of those
articles, which are written to stand alone. To test whether the
Facebook advantage might be due to their gossipy nature
(e.g., general sharing of details about aspects of others’
lives; Dunbar, 2004), we selected articles drawn either from
news or from entertainment. Finally, to test the notion that
the unfiltered, largely unconsidered postings of strangers are
what are especially memorable, we also compared reader
comments drawn from the comment sections at the end of
each news or entertainment article to both the headlines and
Participants One-hundred-eighty UCSD undergraduates
participated in exchange for course credit (age: M0
20.12 years, SD 02.50; 138 female, 42 male).
Materials The stimuli consisted of text drawn from two
categories: CNN’s Breaking News and Entertainment
News sections. From each of those categories, we drew
three subcategories of stimuli: headlines, sentences, and
comments. All were gathered from CNN Twitter feeds
(http://twitter.com/CNNBrk and http://twitter.com/
CNNshowbiz, respectively) dating from August 12, 2011,
through September 15, 2011. For each story, the tweets
linked to the online article, from which we copied the
headline, a sentence chosen at random from the body of
the article, and a randomly chosen reader comment (in the
comments section at the bottom of each article). The ex-
cluded stimuli were single-word items, items more than 25
words long, articles that contained no reader comments, and
comments on comments. We gathered 200 stimuli of each of
the six types. The stimuli were presented, and responses
recorded, with the E-Prime software.
Procedure The participants were instructed that they would
be memorizing stimuli gathered from many sources and
would be given a memory test afterward. One hundred
stimuli were chosen as targets, with 16 or 17 of each type
randomly selected for each participant. No participant saw
more than one item (headline, sentence, or comment) from a
given article. One hundred lures were chosen in the same
way. All other procedures were the same as in Experiment 1.
Due to an experimental error, some duplicate stimuli were
included. All duplicates were removed prior to analysis,
resulting in the loss of two targets or lures for each of 43
subjects, and four for each of six subjects.
A repeated measures ANOVA revealed significant main effects
of text type (headline vs. sentence from article vs. comment)
and category (breaking news vs. entertainment news) on d',F
(2, 358) 0164.27, p< .001, and F(1, 179) 0320.36, p<.001,
respectively (as is shown in Fig. 5). The interaction between
type of text and type of category was significant, F(2, 358) 0
14.94, p< .001. Testing the specific hypothesis that complete
thoughts might beremembered better, we did find that, overall,
the d' for headlines (M02.02, SD 00.82) was higher than that
for random sentences from the articles (M01.59, SD 00.75),
p< .001 (with Bonferroni corrections). Consistent with the
idea that gossipy reports might be more memorable than news
stories of a more impersonal nature, the random sentences
drawn from entertainment news (M01.85, SD 00.72) were
more memorable than those drawn from breaking news articles
(M01.32, SD 00.68), p< .001, and this held for the other
Fig. 5 Average d' values by category for Experiment 3. The error bars
represent standard errors of the means
two types of text—headlines and comments—as well. Finally,
overall, comments at the ends of the articles (M02.27, SD 0
0.79) were not only more memorable than random sentences
from within the articles (M01.59, SD 00.75), p< .001, but
also more memorable than the headlines of those articles (M0
2.02, SD 00.82), p<.001.
We also conducted analyses to determine whether sentence
length could account for the memorability of the comments and
entertainment news. A 2 (category)×3 (text type) between-
group ANOVA was performed on the word counts for all
stimuli. The interaction was not significant, F(2, 1182) 00.57,
p> .05. However, we did find a significant main effect for
category, with higher word counts for breaking news (M0
11.97, SD 05.07) than for entertainment news (M011.06,
SD04.84), F(1, 1182) 013.14, p< .001, as well as a significant
main effect for text type (headline, M07.79, SD 01.93, vs.
sentence, M014.51, SD 04.48, vs. comment, M0
12.17, SD 05.21), F(2, 1182) 0270.26, p< .001, with head-
lines having the lowest word count scores overall, and sentences
from articles having the highest. In other words, word length is
unlikely to be an explanation for the memorability differences,
because the best-remembered stimuli were intermediate in length.
One might think that the greater memorability of the less
formal writing might result from the use of words that are more
commonly encountered in daily life. The memory literature,
however, suggests that low-frequency words (e.g., acrobat)are
remembered better than high-frequency words (e.g., house)on
recognition memory tests (e.g., Glanzer & Bowles, 1976).
Nonetheless, we examined whether word frequency differen-
ces might account for the differences in memorability. Using
the Corpus of Contemporary American English (http://corpus.
byu.edu/coca/), we compared the rates of low-frequency words
in headlines, comments, and sentences. Low-frequency words
were here defined as those not falling within the top 3,000
words in the corpus. A 2 (category)×3 (text type) between-
group ANOVA was performed on the percentages of words
categorized as low-frequency for all stimuli. The means are
showninTable1. A main effect of category emerged, with
entertainment news using more low-frequency words than did
breaking news, F(1, 1182) 021.53, p< .001. We also found a
main effect of text type, F(2, 1182) 0174.91, p< .001, with
headlines having the highest number of low-frequency words.
The Category × Text Type interaction was not significant, F(2,
1182) 01.60, p0.202. While we did find word frequency
differences, they cannot account for the observed advantage of
the comments, which actually, as one might expect, had rela-
tively few memorable low-frequency words, being very simi-
lar on that dimension to the poorly remembered sentences.
The comments, similar to the Facebook posts in the earlier
experiments, were remembered exceptionally well, especial-
ly relative to the breaking news headlines and sentences
from the breaking news and entertainment articles. Their
completeness of ideas (as also found in headlines) could
contribute to, but not fully explain, the memorability of
microblogs. Likewise, the more gossipy nature of
Facebook posts (as also captured in entertainment news)
could contribute to, but also not fully account for, the
memorability of microblogs. It seems likely that both of
these characteristics partially contribute to the memorability
of microblogs. That is, the natural emanations of the human
mind (as expressed in microblogs) are gossipy and have an
element of completeness to them.
In this article, we introduced and investigated a new phe-
nomenon—the incredible memorability of microblogs—and
explored several potential mechanisms for this effect. The
results from the first experiment suggested that memory for
Facebook posts is remarkably strong, significantly stronger
than that observed either for sentences drawn from pub-
lished books or for faces. The second experiment showed
that this effect was not due to the Facebook posts naturally
producing deep social encoding; when people were asked to
do just such deep social encoding, it enhanced memorability
just as much for the Facebook posts as for the book senten-
ces. If the advantage of the posts were due to people, or at
least some reasonable fraction of them, already doing such
social encoding, telling them to do so would have had a
relatively small effect, not the large effect that was demon-
strated. In the final experiment, we tested three factors that
could contribute to the superiority of the posts and found
some evidence for each. Text that is designed to be complete
is indeed remembered better, as was shown by the superior-
ity, in memorability, of headlines over sentences drawn from
the bodies of CNN articles. More gossipy text also seems
Table 1 Average proportions
(with standard deviations) of
low-frequency words per text
type in Experiment 3
Text Type Breaking News Entertainment News Both News Types
Comments .16 (.13) .21 (.15) .18 (.14)
Headlines .34 (.18) .40 (.19) .37 (.19)
Sentences .19 (.12) .21 (.13) .20 (.13)
All text types .23 (.16) .27 (.18) .25 (.18)
advantaged, with text drawn from entertainment news
beating text drawn from breaking news. Finally, it also
seems that sentences written casually by lay people,
without professional, or perhaps any, editing, are espe-
cially readily remembered, as evidenced by the memora-
bility of the comments posted at the ends of entertainment
and news articles.
Related to this idea that casually generated language may
be remembered better, Keenan, MacWhinney, and Mayhew
(1977) examined memory for conversational sentences
uttered by people who participants either did or did not know,
and that had high or low interactive content (i.e., sentences
whose meaning relied, or did not rely, on knowledge of the
specific speaker’s intentions with regard to the particular
listener), using taped lunchroom conversations. The authors
concluded that conversational sentences were remembered
better when people knew the speaker and when the sentences
were high in interactional content. The memory strength of the
Facebook posts and article comments isnot exactly parallel, as
participants were unlikely to know any of the authors, and so
could not tie the utterances to other details of their originators.
However, both the posts and comments—and, to some extent,
the entertainment stories and headlines—do have a conversa-
tional, spontaneous tone (microblogging is, after all, part way
to virtual chatting), and thus may not be entirely unrelated to
hearing personal details from people whom one knows.
Further research would be needed to determine whether this
phenomenon applies to all social media (e.g., tweets or text
messages), and even whether it applies to notes that one writes
oneself, such as diary entries.
Many may consider the Facebook postings and article
comments to be vacuous, narcissistic, or vapid, but they are
thoughts that their writers considered worth sharing. A
philosophical treatise by Immanuel Kant may be more pro-
found, and more edifying to remember, than the average
Facebook post or article comment, but his writings may not
be tuned so precisely to what our minds effortlessly encode.
These especially memorable Facebook posts and reader
comments, generated by ordinary people, may be far closer
than professionally crafted sentences to tapping into the
basic language capacities of our minds. Perhaps the very
sentences that are so effortlessly generated are, for that
reason, the same ones that are readily remembered. Some
sentences—and, most likely, those without careful editing,
polishing, and perfecting—are naturally more “mind-ready.”
The advantage of entertainment over news, as well as the
advantages of Facebook posts over book sentences and of
comments over the headlines and text of articles, may reflect
such a status. Perhaps these effortlessly occurring proclama-
tions help foster social belongingness that may extend to
online communities. As a result, this type of shared infor-
mation does have a privileged status and is remembered
more readily (Nairne & Pandeirada, 2010).
It seems that, with the growth of blogging, text messag-
ing, and the like, written language has moved closer to
natural speech, with less editing and contemplation than
was needed not only when the writing was done by monks
with goose-feather quills or by Gutenberg with moveable
type, but even when it is done by authors sitting patiently at
their own keyboards. In Japan, several top-selling novels
were written in the form of a series of cellphone text mes-
20japan.html). In television, likewise, “reality”program-
ming has been on the increase, moving away from careful
scripting and plotting to something close to what humans
naturally put out, and so perhaps just as naturally take in.
In education, spoken lectures have long been viewed as a
useful adjunct to written texts, even when the latter have
been more polished, thoughtful, and complete. Consistent
with our findings, the nature of the communication may
make the information more memorable, with the professor
generating natural speech. Perhaps, though, textbooks writ-
ten as tweets would render the faculty obsolete.
Author note We thank J. T. Wixted for his comments on this work,
as well as Travis Seale-Carlisle, Kim Huynh, Johanna McElfresh,
Michelle Niku, Katelyn Steele, Lisa Teachanarong, Brenda Wu, and
Allison Yee for data collection.
Appendix: Sample stimuli
i am 7,689 days old...
The library is a place to study, not to talk on your phone
My math professor told me that I was one of his brightest
Love clean sheets :)
Bc sometimes it makes me wonder
Sentences From Books
How did he end up in this family?
Underneath the mass of facial hair beamed a large smile.
Even honor had its limits.
Cody raised his .40 Sig Sauer in a shooter’s grip.
My throat was burning from screaming so loudly.
CNN Breaking News Headlines
Sixth person dies after stage collapse at Indiana State Fair
EU panel calls for embargo on Syrian oil as reports of
Justice Department charges 91 in $295 million Medicare
CNN Breaking News Sentences
Americans respond to decisiveness.
At least 29 deaths were reported from a defiant outpouring
of mass demonstrations Friday.
He was arrested Thursday and was taken before federal
investigators for interrogation.
CNN Breaking News Comments
I am an unemployed teacher in the deep south.
Attacking schoolchildren and funerals. Yep, that’sthe
brave Taliban, alright.
I told you so, but never listen going again to the wrong
CNN Entertainment Headlines
Housewives’star Michaele Salahi assures deputy she’s
Netflix now enforcing streaming limit
Phish to host benefit for Vermont flood victims
CNN Entertainment Sentences
Ryan O’Neal attended the hearing Wednesday, but did
not address the court.
The actor attributes his burst of heroism to feeling limber.
We believe at one point, he even breaks out the running
CNN Entertainment Comments
Is this lady really a model? Wow she looks awful!
No talent hack, I should feed him to the lizards.
We will never forget that day and how it changed our
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