By Melissa Healy
Los Angeles Times
7:26 PM EST, January 16, 2013
They may be caring, angry, provocative, bawdy or just plain inane. But even when read by strangers, the brief entries we write on Facebook are more memorable than the polished prose of writing professionals. And these online quips have more staying power with readers than do the faces of people we encounter on our daily rounds, a new study finds.
That may be a tribute to one of the most fundamental qualities of "microblogs," the bite-sized comments we cast upon an ocean of global communication like a message in a bottle: They are personal, spontaneous and conversational. As such, they seem to be more readily committed to memory than the more complex sentences we labor over in more formal communications.
"A philosophical treatise by Immanuel Kant may be more profound, and more edifying to remember, than the average Facebook post or article comment, but his writings might not be tuned so precisely to what our minds effortlessly encode," write the authors of the study, published over the weekend in the journal Memory and Cognition. "Perhaps the very sentences that are so effortlessly generated are, for the same 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,'" they added.
The authors, a group of psychology researchers from UC San Diego and the University of Scranton, gleaned these findings by putting as many as 280 UCSD undergraduates through a series of memory tests. The experiments tested the students' ability to recall — and the certainty of their recall for — Facebook postings, sentences plucked from newly published books and photos of human faces. Divided into two groups, the subjects were told they were engaged in a test of memory, and were presented either 100 sentences written by microbloggers or 100 written by book authors. None of the sentences was more than 25 words long, and in fact, the sentences drawn from Facebook entries were on average a little longer than sentences drawn from books.
Just after reading this long list of sentences, subjects were given an even larger list of sentences and asked whether each had been in the original group of sentences. For each of the 200 sentences on the larger list, they also were asked to rate their degree of certainty in recalling whether it was included in or absent from the original list.
The subjects who reviewed Facebook entries not only recognized more of the entries they had already read, but did so with greater confidence than did the subjects who reviewed sentences penned by book authors. Even when they took out entries that had distinctive spellings or irregular typography ("Helllloooooo?"), researchers found that subjects reviewing Facebook entries remembered them better than did those who read the more staid sentences.
The researchers conducted the same experiment with a twist: While one group read sentences drawn from Facebook entries, the other group looked at standard pictures of human faces. And then the two groups switched tasks. Across both groups, the Facebook entries were more firmly entrenched in memory than were faces that they had seen.
There was a big difference between the strength with which Facebook posts were remembered and that with which face or book-authors' sentences were recalled: The scale of the difference, the authors wrote, was roughly on a par with the memory differences between people with amnesia and those with normal memory.
Perhaps, authors surmise, "these effortlessly occurring proclamations help foster social belongingness," and tap into evolutionary pressures that have made human memory for social information more keen than that for more neutral information.
Not unlike this writer, the authors of the study mused on its significance for them: For now, at least, students seem to value a professor-delivered lecture as an adjunct to a textbook.
"Perhaps, though, textbooks written as tweets would render the faculty obsolete."
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