Memorialisation, or the commemoration and remembrance of past events, has traditionally been done, at least in part, through the building of specific structures—physical memorials—with the sole purpose of remembering past events or individuals. Now, the arrival of the Internet has resulted in a growing number of new forms of memorials—digital and internet memorials. These range from intimate and personal memorials for deceased family members (Sade-Beck) to government-designed national digital memorials that commemorate tragedies and national disasters. How are these digital memorials affecting memorialisation and how are they different from physical memorials? The various functions and effects of physical memorials have been well studied. Halbwachs, in his much-cited piece On Collective Memory, argues that all collective memorialising (memory held and passed on by a group) must occur within a physical environment and spatial framework (Halbwachs). Thus, physical memorials, as part of this environment, are an important way for a group to present a snapshot of its collective memory for both the present and also the future generations. Are digital memorials changing the nature of collective memory in such a way that Halbwachs’ argument for the necessity of collective memory to occur within a physical space is actually becoming obsolete? Moving beyond collective memory analysis, how do digital memorials compare with physical memorials and is it possible for digital memorials to replace physical memorials? While these questions are rather broad, I hope to answer them as least in part through the analysis of 2 different Internet memorial sites regarding the September 11th (9/11) attacks on the World Trade Center.
These two websites are the official 9/11 museum and memorial website (9/11 memorial website), and the website WhereWereYou.org, which is a collection of personal narratives about 9/11. Each website presents a unique and distinct digital take on the memorialisation of 9/11. The 9/11 memorial website, being run by the official organs of the state and chaired by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, is a representation of the official and governmental use of the internet to memorialise an event. The website WhereWereYou.org, on the other hand, is a repository of individual stories created by students as a memorial project, and generally represents the public use of the Internet to memorialise events. While these two memorials cannot be said to represent the broad and diverse range of digital memorials present, they both contain very distinct but interesting features (which I will elaborate on later) made possible due to the connectivity and accessibility of the internet and they give us insights to some of the possible roles and functions of a digital memorial. Through analysing these two websites, I will argue that while digital memorials are not able to replace physical memorials, they do fulfill a unique role in commemoration that is distinct from that of physical memorials. Also, when the physical memorial and its corresponding digital memorial interact, they complement each other and the digital memorial actually helps further the messages of the physical memorial and extends its reach.
The first useful question to ask to see if a digital memorial can replace a physical memorial is: what unique features does a digital memorial have? Analysis of these new features of digital memorials will allow us to see if they can fulfill two traditional purposes of physical memorials, namely the “ability to evoke” an emotional response in an audience (Azaryahu) and the ability to affect as well as perpetuate collective memory within Halbwachs’ collective memory framework (Halbwachs). One of the most interesting features about the 9/11 memorial website is that one is able to take a virtual tour of the memorial. Visitors no longer need to be physically present at the memorial to see the design and the exhibits; it is now all online. Halbwachs, as previously mentioned, argues that a populace—the group living in a physical environment—remembers events within a spatial context and thus, all collective memory must occur within a spatial context (Halbwachs). Perhaps this creation of a virtual space is actually a way for collective memory to form, and the virtual memorial might be able evoke an emotional response in an audience as well. Furthermore, the option of free exploration allows even greater interaction with this virtual environment that is not offered in other alternatives to visiting the memorial such as viewing pictures or videos of the memorial. Already, it can be argued that films and television do sometimes create this environment for the formation of collective memory (Edgarson and Rollins), so some might reach the conclusion that the creation of an online environment to explore would allow the formation of a collective memory as well.
However, this so-called offer of free exploration does not hold as much excitement and engagement in the online world as it does in the real world. In terms of emotional response, we see that the individuals in the distorted reality of virtual worlds experience a smaller emotional response to stimuli as compared to a physical environment (Fraser et al.). Fraser suggests that the 3 contributing factors to this effect in online environments are: a lack of depth perception, lack of physical feedback, and latency in feedback. These factors result in a lower sense of “presence” or reality in the virtual space (Lee) which results in this lower emotional response to stimuli within the online environment. This prevents an online memorial from ever evoking as poignant an emotional response when compared to physical memorials. Further evidence of this reduced emotional impact comes from the research of Culnan and Markus (1987) in “computer-mediated communication”: their experiments showed that online communication evoked less emotions as compared to face to face communication.
This reduction in emotional response hinders the formation of collective memory as well. Kensinger (2009), a psychologist, argues that a person experiencing an event (viewing a memorial for example) which results in “emotional arousal” will remember this event more clearly than an event without any “emotional arousal,” and she shows that there is strong experimental evidence to support this (100). This results in digital memorials being less able to contribute to the formation of a collective memory due to its inability in evoking an emotional response. We see this happening in games, where the formation of a collective memory within virtual co-operative groups called “guilds” or “associations” requires a long time and is very gradual, requiring continuous interaction with an online community and the online environment (Papargyris and Poulymenakou). Extending this argument of a reduced emotional response in online memorials, we see that this applies for all other features of digital memorials as well. There will be a difference between viewing or experiencing the memorial online, and witnessing the memorial firsthand in a living and breathing physical environment. Hence, digital memorials will never be able to replace a physical memorial in terms of the emotional effect on the audience or the formation of a collective memory due to the fact that the digital or online experience cannot substitute a physical experience.
Beyond looking at the impact of digital memorials on collective memory and emotional response, we ought to examine its ability to tell a historical narrative as well. Physical memorials, such as museums (Seltz), are useful avenues to tell and present a historical narrative (Dwyer). A distinct feature about digital memorials is the ability to store a huge volume of information online, as well as allowing many to contribute to this volume of information. We see this in WhereWereYou.org, where over 2500 pages of personal narratives are stored and anyone can simply contribute to this repository instantaneously. Some may argue that the Internet, with its ability to store so much information, is able to overcome problems of displaying multiple narratives in physical memorials. We see that in museums, it is difficult to present all the different narratives about an event due to spatial constraints (Seltz). Thus, the Internet seems to circumvent this inherent weakness of a physical memorial as the Internet is able to hold and store a large amount of textual and pictorial material (Putzel; Sade-Beck). Hence, it seems like an Internet memorial could possibly be better in displaying multiple narratives than a physical memorial because it is easier to store and display multiple differing narratives such that the audience can see the divergent viewpoints.
However, in practice this does not work out on the Internet, as personal narratives are plentiful and the ease of contributing content creates a incredible amount of personal narratives which instead of being useful now become a huge tangle of narratives to sieve through. We see that in WhereWereYou.org, over 2500 pages of personal narratives exist! How do we make sense of these large numbers of narratives without silencing some views in the first place? Even if we attempt to categorise these narratives into more meaningful larger narratives or attempt to look at only a section of these narratives, inevitably we face the issue of silencing because some individual narratives will not be represented, thus encountering the same problem of not being able to present all narratives in the first place. As such, what seems like a beneficial and liberalising feature of the internet is actually unwieldy and overwhelming; so much so that it actually becomes a noise of narratives and personal stories rather than showing the existence of segmentation of personal narratives into clearly defined common narratives and viewpoints.
However, these Internet memorials do play a unique role in sustaining the existence of vernacular or individual memories. It is important to note that the act of memorialisation, done by both individuals and groups, comprises of the recollection of several variants of collective memories and many more distinct individual memories, and thus is not reducible to a sole collective memory. These individual memories exist within the greater context of collective memories and are often differ in content and perspective with the collective memory (Halbwachs). In the past, individuals had little avenue for expression and publicising of their individual memories, which resulted in a top-down dissemination of narratives where the official narrative as published by the authorities influenced individuals and this resulted in the official narrative usually becoming the dominant form of collective memory (Robinson). We see this happen in Singapore during the 1964 Racial Riots, where individuals could not contribute or publicise their individual memories, leading to the official narrative becoming the dominant collective memory (Low). Furthermore, in the media, one of the most pertinent avenues of expressing opinions and thus narratives, journalists tend to select conventional views to portray, and “repair” unconventional views in order to fit the “agreed-upon version” of the event (Robinson). This results in further silencing of individual memories and narratives.
Now, the ease of content creation in the Internet is allowing the perpetuation of multiple memories and narratives not directly related to that of the agreed-upon (or if made official by an authority, the official) narrative. The “democratisation of the past” according to Haskins (2007) has allowed individuals to create media content now, where previously the media content creation tools lay solely with the government and media companies. This has allowed individuals to share their personal narratives and individual memories online and that is actually what we see in WhereWereYou.org, where individuals have come together to provide many personal narratives about 9/11. Further evidence of individual memories being sustained due to internet memorials comes from Sade-Beck’s (2003) article on Israeli commemoration. She argues that increasingly individuals are creating virtual memorials for their deceased relatives and that is a clear example of the perpetuation of individual memories about their loved ones. One possible consequence of this online sharing of individual memories and narratives is that it allows more personal perspectives and views on events to be heard, resulting in individual memories being more able to affect and influence collective memory than before. Ultimately, digital and Internet memorials do serve an important function in sustaining and perpetuating individual memories.
As such, due to the unique content sharing capabilities and accessibility of the Internet, it is actually possible to view online memorials and physical memorials as complementing mediums. When an Internet memorial and its corresponding physical memorial interacts, the internet memorial is actually helping to further the messages of the physical memorial. While the online memorial can never serve as a substitute for the physical memorial, it can help raise awareness to the physical memorial itself as well as increase accessibility of the memorial’s messages to the public. In the case of the 9/11 Museum webpage, the Internet webpage of the memorial serves to disseminate information about the official narrative of 9/11. This is evidenced by the Teach/Learn hyperlinks on the webpage that in fact are perpetuating the official narrative of the 9/11. Thus, while it will never tell as impactful a narrative as the physical memorial—a result of the lower emotional response it evokes—digital memorials can still serve as a medium to disseminate this narrative.
Furthermore, the digital memorial not only furthers the messages of the physical memorial online, it is also doing so offline as well. We can see the 9/11 memorial actually provides resources for individuals to commemorate the attacks offline. It does this through the provision of resources such as banners, templates and list of names to commemorate and they are all available for download and ordering online. Thus, it is much easier to stage commemoration events and this is a way digital memorials are bolstering physical commemoration in real life. It is also possible to the use the Internet as a platform to organise commemoration events and ceremonies for 9/11. Even on the 9/11 museum website, there is a hyperlink to attend oral history sharing sessions on 9/11, and clicking on that link brings you to the contact details of the organisation “StoryCorps” which is organising these oral history sharing sessions. It is interesting to note that these products of these oral history sharing sessions, these conversations about 9/11 held in classrooms and seminar rooms, are further shared online as well, creating a interesting interdependent relationship between the physical and digital worlds. Organisations and individuals use the digital world to disseminate information, and the digital world helps bring together people physically to create content. Thus, we see that the digital memorial complements the physical memorial both online and offline.
However, this only applies for the physical memorial and its complementary website. There are still some conflict of narratives involved when we consider the Internet memorial WhereWereYou.org to the 9/11 physical and digital museum complement. The 9/11 memorial website, being run by the same authority as the museum, presents the agreed-upon narrative, thus perpetuating a collective memory. WhereWereYou.org on the other hand, presents a lot of individual narratives about 9/11 that do not necessarily agree with the collective memory. Haskins (2007) offers an insight as to who will be the “winner” of this conflict: she explains that the power of multiple authorships and choice on the internet results in the equal leveling of narratives, where official narratives have to compete with individual narratives on the same level. Eventually the more popular narrative will gain prevalence to become a dominant narrative and hence find its place in collective memory.
Hopefully, the conclusions I have reached in this specific case study of 9/11 memorials can give insights into how physical memorials with an official narrative interact with both its digital complement as well as a dissimilar internet memorial on the same event. Also, maybe understanding the strengths and weaknesses of digital memorials will allow the tailoring and development of digital memorials to complement physical memorials better. Still, the multiple ways internet or digital memorials interact with physical memorials is complex and definitely it will be a long time before all the effects of the internet are understood, a direct result of the vastness and broadness of the internet. Further questions that should be considered include: what if the physical memorial has no digital complements and thus online memorials are directly competing with physical memorials? When there is no official narrative and only popular narratives, what role does the Internet play then? There are still many questions left unanswered due to the broad nature of the Internet, and it is a field worth looking into.
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