The worth of remembering
: Performances of digital memory work on social media platforms in the lives of young women

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Through resurfacing past digital traces as “memories” for users, social media platforms assert their role in memory making. Users also invest time and labour on platforms to remember moments, experiences, and aspects of the past. Drawing on qualitative research, this thesis critically examines this dynamic by exploring how young women perform digital memory work with, on, and through Instagram and Facebook.

In asking how individuals position memory as meaningful to their sharing practices, engagement with platforms, and conceptualisation of profiles and digital traces, the thesis contributes to the developing subfield of digital memory studies. By centring the perspectives and experiences of young women as memory agents, demonstrating how remembering is enfolded in everyday online sharing, and addressing gendered subjectivities and examining assertions of value by human and non-human actors, it advances understandings of the dynamics of social media platforms and memory.

The thesis adopts a feminist, ethnographic approach, combining thematic and narrative analysis of qualitative interviews with 16 young women (aged 18-21) using the scroll back method, observation of their activities on Instagram and Facebook for six months, and focus group discussions. It develops the analytical framework of digital memory work to recognise the distribution of agency among human and non-human actors without assuming the value produced by their mnemonic labour is analogous.

The analysis demonstrates that young women perform digital memory work in response to a gendered classification system based on happy memories connected to socialising and travel. This normative model shapes their in-the-moment sharing, their conceptualisations of “memories”, and influences young women’s lived experiences. By tracing performances across 2020, the thesis argues that the disruptive, transformative experiences of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter challenged and affirmed the value of digital memory work. Participants used their sharing to bear witness to lockdown and social distancing restrictions, demonstrating an internalisation of the moral imperative to record Covid-19. For some, this involved the continued intentional construction of happy memories. Maintaining the ‘right feelings’ and appearances during Covid-19 highlights how gendered norms of sharing endure during a time of social change. The study also identifies a shift to performing externally oriented digital memory work for political and social justice purposes in response to the murder of George Floyd. It is argued that participation in digital activism involves a re-evaluation of how the past is mobilised and the self is situated in a network of learning and sharing.

The thesis highlights how the identification of memories by human and non-human actors is underpinned by an ongoing assessment in which certain moments, feelings, and digital traces are considered worth remembering. By theorising the worth of remembering, the thesis demonstrates how digital memory work is temporally and contextually bound and subject to renegotiation over time. It offers digital memory studies an analytical tool for approaching the value of remembering for both people and platforms.
Date of Award1 Jan 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAnna Reading (Supervisor) & Red Chidgey (Supervisor)

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