Networked Collective Memory

Patty Jansen

  • Article by Patty Jansen (participant Summer School 2015 in Rotterdam)

The past has become remarkably adjustable. The digital network allows users to actively and simultaneously produce and reproduce their and other versions of a collective past. Collective memories are open to entire communities and their form has become as fluid and in flux as their traditional concept inherently is. A generative multi-memory is created, in which the browser is used as a collective memory-tool, providing the possibility to react and upload real-time. We can write our past for the future to come from our homes, in our chairs, at our desks. By circulating images and image sequences online, the image repeats itself and comes back again. The collective memory is embedded in the spreading and repetition of these creations. They become a collective memory tool and simultaneously, a collective representation. Users insert a bit of themselves into the production and send it across the web for others to use and commemorate. Here, memory is literally figuratively on the move; images and videos are posted on various websites to show the user’s concern with the collective memory. As the concept of collective memory is in flux, networks are constantly in flux, they do not fall silent. Geert Lovink already stresses this point in Networks Without A Cause


Lovink, G., (2011) Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press.

(2011); the web has no memory, it does not store — how are we able to understand all of this information when its context is always in transition? Memory and commemoration, official and individual memory now co-exist in the ever changing network. Can we make sense of the merging of these ever changing concepts in order to design our past and present into the future?

Mediating Memory

Ironically, one of the most fundamental aspects to the abstract and complex concept of collective memory is that its context is always developing and open to meaning. Where memory relates to our identity, collective memory relates to our national or community identity. “We are in need of a narrative that binds us in a uniting feeling, a togetherness — the feeling that we are not alone in this.”, Carolyn Kitch writes in Mourning in America: ritual, redemption, and recovery in news narrative after September 11


Donk , A., (2009) 'The Digitization of Memory: Blessing or Curse? A Communication Science Perspective', pp. 1 — 17. Presented at the Media in Transition Conference “MIT6: Stone and Papyrus, Storage and Transmission”, April 24 — 26, 2009, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston.

(2005). This nation identity can survive and evolve overtime, Kitch explains, meaning content-wise, it can and will change, if only because of the ever changing collective. However abstract it may seem, collective memory does takes on corporeal form in means of memorials, museums and lives on in the minds of the people who feel aligned with this specific memory. The collective memory depends heavily on mediation: it needs production and performance, since we cannot actually possess this moment in history we try to remember (Neiger 2011)3. We need to mediate to remember. This is where Pierre Nora's concept of Les Lieux de Mémoire comes to mind; the places of memory, such as physical monuments, which are built with its main purpose to prevent the loss of our shared memory and in this way, stand apart from history. In On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age (2011), Motti Neiger3 (a.o.) points out that collective memory is mediated through rituals, ceremonial commemorations and mass media texts. Examples are a nations half mast flag as a sign for mourning which is performed on specific dates to commemorate specific events or performed right after specific events to show grief and respect, the 'Dodenherdenking' on the 4th of May in the Netherlands, where two minutes of silence at eight o'clock in the evening is contributed to commemorate those who died for 'our' freedom in the WO II and the special supplement of the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad in July 2014 to commemorate the victims of the MH17 airplane crash. Another significant example of such mass media texts is the awarded section of The New York Times during the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, called A Nation Challenged which ran till December 31 2001, but will remain indefinite on and played an important part in the nation's mourning process by portraying victims in a very personal and honouring way. This section is a very good example of what we call public memory — an intersection of official memory by institutions and vernacular memory, which represents almost literally the voice of the people — you could say, the individual experience of a collective memory. The web has shown to be open to combinations of official and vernacular memory such as for example the german online magazine SPIEGEL where online users can submit articles on German history (Donk 2009)4 and TIME Magazine's Portraits of Resilience from 2011 where survivors, family members, US officials and the President share their personal stories of 9/11 on video. However, more and more users circulate and share their own creations of a certain collective memory.


A nation challenged 'portraits of grief' (2001), The New York Times


On the web and digital interfaces, a memory is generated which moves back and forth between past, present and future. It shapes a complex memory, where in the shaping we lose memory by deleting, uploading, producing and reproducing over and over again and at the same time, gain a collective memory in the form of these processes and the relations they render. Quoting Media Theorist & philosopher Wolfgang Ernst5 on his concept of processual memory: “The web provides immediate feedback, turning all present data into archival entries and archival entries into data — a dynamic agency, with no delay between memory and the present. Archive and memory become metaphorical; a function of transfer processes.”, which Ernst describes as an economy of circulation — permanent transformations and updating. There are no places of memory, Ernst states, there are simply urls (Ernst 2013). In other words; digital memory is built from its architecture, it is embedded in the network and constituted from how it links from one to another. The dynamics of the network, history and the collective have fallen into each other, something we can start to rethink through Manuel Castells’ concept of the space of flows where humans, computers and the network are connected, manifesting eventually into something physical but how, where and when is determined by the network itself (Castells [1996] 2010)6. “History is first organized according to the availability of visual material”, Castells writes, “then submitted to the computerized possibility of selecting seconds of frames to be pieced together, or split apart, according to specific discourses.” (Castells [1996] 2010)6. Both Ernst and Castells connect the notion of the network to time: the way a certain medium produces time, is the way experience and memory are generated. Historical static time, the narrative, the chronological ordering we all seem to depend on, meets digital media temporality. In Castells' theory this is also influenced by the maker and its interpreter: “The user-producer and user-consumer organise information, perception and expression by their impulses, distorting the historical ordering of chronological events and become arranged in time sequences based on these impulses.” (Castells [1996] 2010)6. Castells describes this as a culture of the eternal and the ephemeral; it reaches back and forth the sequence of our cultural history of events but at the same time it is transitory because each arrangement and sequence depend on the context and purpose it is constructed (Castells [1996] 2010)6. We are not in a culture of circularity, Castells concludes, but we find ourselves in the midst of undifferentiated temporality of cultural expressions (Castells [1996] 2010)6. What Castells tries to point out here, is that even in a time-based medium such as the digital network, present discourse in the Foucauldian sense is still just as highly influencial. Network collective memory does not only concern time, it is time projected on time, over and over again.

Networked Collective Memory

Ernst describes the idea of a digital museum and archive cautiously as 'non-places'. From Nora's places of memory7 we are now moving towards digital non-places of memory. In the context of networks, these nonplaces of memory can be seen as processes of memory; a generative memory with its meaning, collective and mediation always on the move. For example, the images and GIFs of 9/11 have had the opportunity to grow over the past fourteen years. When we compare it's size and content to a much more 'fresh' and 'smaller', yet still very political trauma like the crash of MH17, we can see that a development of size and content has taken place overtime. Not only has the web become a primary medium to our contemporary existence over the past decade, the content has also evolved in a much more symbolized content, instead of only news reporting and photo's of the wreckage or places where the disaster took place. There is the collage image, which appears in large amounts on the web, but in content do not differ very much but still have very subtle user-additions. These collages often follow banner, GIF and movie-like aesthetics; shorts texts and strong symbols. In many examples, the burning towers, the American flag and the American Eagle are combined into one picture. Variations contain photo's of rescue workers, the Statue of Liberty and two towers wreckage. Blurring and opacity techniques have been used to bled the different symbols coherently into one picture and gives a dreamy, timeless and movie-like touch. There is a repeated use of images in these collages, which stirs a feeling of recognition. The more it is repeated, the more repetition it shows in itself. This falls back on network dynamics; “Spreading leads to more spreading,” Anna Munster writes in An Aesthesia of Networks (2013)8, “The more things go viral, the more they become networked. It folds back on itself in order to replicate, it builds on itself towards one point but simultaneously generates something new; platforms, sensations and unpredictable relations.” — and a new form of collective memory, as I might add. The image is shared and picked up by the collective: the one image is influenced by or created from the other image. And while it is picked up, a little bit of the user is rendered into these images and send along the web. The image, in this sense, is always in transition and refers back to the collective of its creation. Statements are added to keep the memory close, to invoke it. We Will Never Forget, We Will Always Remember, we try to ensure ourselves that we still possess this memory we try to keep near us, even more so in the overwhelming quantity of the web. What is created here, is a collective monument spread along urls, always open to individual additions, interaction and loss and where the actual mediation, the actual collective memory, lies in the repetition and sharing of this mediation. We are looking at a digital Lieu de Mémoire — obviously, we are in need of a new definition.


Google Search by Image, screenshot (October 29 2015)s

Designing Time

We have only just tackled the idea of the places of memory and now we have to move our attention to memory developing and fading at a much higher speed in a network that renders relations and experiences in a way we are only beginning to understand. In both concepts, time is everything. Collective memory sets out to connect people from the present to people and events from the past in order to built future memory. Digital time, in comparison to static time as presented by historical writing, is an inherent temporal concept. There is the possibility to publish immediately and what is uploaded can be altered minutes later, sometimes lost forever. With the possibility of the public to be co-writers, designers and editors of collective memory, another memory is generated, which is constituted solely out of the sum of uploads, repetition, edits and deletions of its users; a transformative memory with its context always being processed. As designers and researchers, it becomes apparent that it is just about time we design our relation towards time. Are we makers, interpreters, conservators, archivists, observers, constructers, are we all or maybe we seek to forget? As designers and researchers, we have to distinguish ourselves from the memory creating crowd in order to envision and shape future 'better times'.