My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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memories: capturing vs. creating

I’ve never been a good photographer because i’m more interested in creating memories than capturing them. As my memories fade over time, what stands out are the adventures. Living out Charlie’s Angels. Making friends with the giraffe. When i meet new people and i tell stories, i tell the stories of ridiculous, absurd times. Silver and pink puffball attacking with Waldo behind. Lectures given with I Fuck Like a Girl t-shirt.

In Learning to Labor, Willis talks about the importance of working class kids creating dramas as part of “personalised folklore” (22). I started thinking about how this fits in with what i’ve said before about life stages. Stereotypically, youth are known for “living for the moment” and not thinking about the future (much to adults’ dismay); parents are obsessed with capturing moments; and grandparents want to revisit them. Is there anything out there that documents different uses of photography in relation to age?

One of the saddest parts of getting older is that i feel as though there are far fewer adventures. Years go by with little to mark them whereas virtually all college months are marked through some drama in my head. My friends are capturing events and i think that Flickr holds more of my memories than my mind or body does. I often look at photos of me and realize that i had completely forgotten about that event. Yet, when i read all of my old blog posts from college, they followed the narrative i have in my head crafted through dramas. Am i letting technology replace my memory center? Or are things less memorable for me now?

There are certainly dramas now but more because they happen -to- me than because i create them. Of course, i haven’t gone this long without changing cities or driving cross-country since middle school.

What is the role of the adventure or the drama in memory maintenance? What is the role of technology? Are they compatible? Does a shift reflect a shift in behavior or is it created by one? I have no idea…

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8 comments to memories: capturing vs. creating

  • Didn’t I read somewhere that emotionally charged events are the most memorable? I bet if someone had pointed a gun at me right afterwards, I’d remember *exactly* where I read it.

  • I recently found a number of photographs, which I have shot on a cruise in Greece when I was about five years old. My mum had given me a camera and there is lovely picture, showing me, together with this massive tool in front of my face 😉

    As I am studying art history, I was not so much interested in how they had shaped my own memory (although this is an important question), but instead, I was fascinated about how my photographic view (basically how I see the world around me) had been shaped throughout this holiday.

    The images I had taken on the ship were somehow anarchistic (and are actually quite cool), not following any golden rules of How To Take Photographs. This had changed when we went on one of the islands. My images suddenly became somehow stereotype, looking more like postcards. So I checked my mums photo album and realised, that I had, as soon as we were on the island, photographed exactly the same objects and view as she had, that I was, in other words, just imitating her.

    There is especially one image that looks exactly like postcard. But not only mum had in her album, also my brother found it in his although he went there twenty years later. I even searched for lindos (city shown on the picture) in Google Picture-Search and found it again.

    It turned out that it was taken from a viewpoint, where everybody can get the one picturesque photograph we all love. So my part of the answer would be: There is not just the adventure, but also the way we are trained how to see them. How? I have no idea…

    PS: Sorry about my possibly very Swiss English.

  • B

    I couldn’t tell about photo, as I never take or look at any “personal” shots. I can however tell you that I completely forgot about any event that I did not write about—and I rarely write about anything right away, so I forget about any event that did not make some sense soon afterwards, should it be a curious or an absurd one.
    One thing that technology did not change (I used to postal-mail a lot, and now I e-mail even more) is that loosing my archives make me loose my memory. Is your really about technology, though? I like the implications from the distinction in your first sentence: this is very much about technology and its impact on culture, but the rest is more about traces whatever the format, is it?

    However, I would like to disagree on your point that getting older makes your life less thrilling… But with the years passing by, it sounds increasingly true. Why is that?
    I believe with experience, you get to judge events with more altitude, people with a broader view of humanity—and with old age, you go back home before alcool really challenges the sanity of the party.

    If your mood is still wondering about rememberance, you might want to check on most Milan Kundera’s novels: he loves to talk about people meeting after a long time, often former lovers, hoping to share some memories, but only coming into misunderstandings. Czech origins, rapidly switched to French; should be easy to find translations; as you seem to have special connections with Amazon:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/search/ref=br_ss_hs/103-7969317-9454206?search-alias=aps&keywords=kundera

    Keep on blogging: I am absolutely fascinated by your comments.

  • Phoebe

    Now that I’m a parent, I’m facing my own mortality even more than when I was younger. Along with the responsible stuff along the lines of buying life insurance, I’ve given my newish blog (younger than a year) an additional purpose.

    It started out as a way to keep in touch with friends and memory capture for when I want to revisit moments. But now… I also often post with my kids in mind, knowing it will be an opportunity for them to get to know me should something terrible ever happen to me while they’re still young. It’s not anything direct; I’ve heard where parents with terminal illnesses might write specifically to their children in full acknowledgment of what’s to come. It’s generally a recap of things that I’ve done and the way I feel about stuff. Could be boring and mundane in one sense, but hopefully still precious to a child. Lately, I’ve been trying to recount childhood/teenage memories in my blog because those have been fading too. I’ve come to realize that I have creative control on how I present myself but I try not to be too conscious of that. I don’t want my blog to be full of only my gripes and complaints, nor do I want it to be full of the ‘good stuff’ only. I’d want them to know that I was human and made mistakes and that – even if their memories of me were limited – I was a real person they can get to know beyond stories from daddy and other relatives.

    If I don’t die young, then I’ll have plenty to revisit later. 😉

    I like this technology. I never was a good journal keeper.

  • Your mileage (or kilometrage) may vary, but I found that my thirties and early forties were fairly bland, memory-wise (except for certain punctuations with my kids, and me nearly dieing, but that’s another story). Now that I’ve ended my forties (and redirected my life) the vividness and variety that I associated with my youth has returned.

    Perhaps the apparent diminishing of memorable events has more to do with routine and the lessening of uncertainty. Now that my future is completely uncertain (and my present is a relatively joyful exploration of interesting ideas and people) there is considerably more vividness. The old cliche of youth being wasted on the young doesn’t necessarily apply, if one can learn to recapture its uncertainty, potential and adventure.

  • Here’s a slightly different take on life stages:

    1) apophenia: making connections where none previously existed.

    2) apophenia: seeing connections where none actually exist.

    3) apophenia: finding out the connections that mattered weren’t the ones we invested ourselves in.

    And another:

    1) Life is what you make of it.

    2) Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans (and the oft forgotten Chapman Corollary: “So is death.”)

    3) [paraphrasing Ricki Lee Jones here] You never knew when you were making a memory.

    And …

    1) Fuck memories. Just do it.

    2) Just hurry up and do something memorable.

    3) Just remember whatever you want to.

    I think I was going to try making a point with these. I don’t remember what it was, though.

  • You might be interested in reading the book Connoisseur’s Guide to the Mind, by Roger Schank. I have a review on my web site. The book is out of print, but worth digging up. It does a good job of explaining why we remember things, and why we don’t. I think the bottom line is that we need to push ourselves into new and surprising territory, but not too far, or else we won’t have anything to relate to.

  • Phred

    Certain age differences are implicit throughout Chalfen but I don’t think he ever does tackle that question head-on.

    If you’re like most other folks, you create less drama now because you’re less self-centered. And employed 🙂