Memory Work in the Digital Age: Exploring the Boundary between Universal and Particular Memory Online

Article excerpt

Abstract

Interactive media have altered the basic relationship between contemporary individuals and their cultural texts. The ability of individuals broadcast their lives, thoughts, and stories begs the question: What is the relationship between collective and individual memory within the age of new media? As Barbie Zelizer argues in her Reading the Past Against the Grain, collective memory is a dualistic creation containing both the particular and the universal (p. 230). While collective memories are based on individual lived memories, they also constitute a commonality, a universal story. The memory must exist simultaneously as the particular and universal, remaining clear and significant at both the micro and macro level of interpretation. In order to do so, the memory is mediated materially or conceptually through a meso-level structure: a memorial. This essay explores the changes occurring through new media in the representation of collective memory as individuals increasingly write their own stories into "memorials." By drawing on collective memory literature and focusing on a series of classification for contemporary online memorialization, this study seeks to investigate the tradeoffs inherent in the translation from the individual to the collective: Is there a point at which the texture of individual voice is lost in the chorus, or the chorus is reduced to a cacophony? Utilizing several examples of online storytelling memorials, including This American Life, StoryCorps, and The Tate Modern Intermedia site NoPlace, this essay explores the balance between the power of particularity and the appeal of the universal and offers several categories by which to read these tradeoffs: everyday designed, everyday edited, and everyday abstracted.

Keywords: collective memory, digital memory, structuration theory, encoding/decoding, new media

New Media/New Memory: An Introduction

Recent advances in interactive media have resulted in a shift that changes the basic relationship between contemporary individuals and their culture. As Walter Benjamin predicted in his work The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2008), "the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character...At any moment the reader is ready to turn into a writer" (p. 28). While in this quote Benjamin refers to an era of mechanical reproduction, Benjamin's description also predicts the age of digital reproduction in which contemporary users of new media switch fluidly in one moment to the next from their role as "reader" to "author" of a text. These technological shifts allow users of new media to access an apparently infinite amount of information while providing them with the option to write their own texts in response. These technological changes affect many aspects of contemporary life by delineating a new role for the private individual within public life. One of the locations where this cultural shift is felt is within the relationship between collective or public memory and individual memory. The ability of private individuals to blog, YouTube, or otherwise broadcast the details of their lives, thoughts, and experiences, coupled with the seemingly endless space for storing this data begs the questions: What is the relationship between collective and individual memory within the age of new media? How is collective memory treated within interactive and new media? How does digital sphere alter the act of commemoration?

New media technology is changing the process of the production of collective memory because online sites of memory constitute new media of translation of memory from the individual to the collective. Collective memory is, at its foundation, a dualistic creation containing both the particular and the universal (Zelizer, 1995, p. 230). Before memories become collective, they are based on some sort of lived memories. Thus, the collective memory originates as a particular memory-it is particular to an individual or to a group. …