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The Diffusion of Media/Memory: the new complexity

By Andrew Hoskins

Collective memory dominates as a concept, metaphor and form, in the study of memory that goes beyond (but also includes) that of the individual, as well as imposing a significant presence in the lexicon of debates about societal orientations to the past more broadly conceived. Despite the extensive conceptual and theoretical critiques, the comprehensive splintering of ‘memory’ into an array of metaphors, forms and taxonomies, and even, and especially, the discomfort claimed by some as they continue nonetheless to employ the term as pivotal to their analysis, collective memory weighs heavy on and in the emergent field of memory studies.

At the same time, there is an emergent tension between a perspective overwhelmingly informed by the theories, models and methods of an era of unambiguously ‘mass’ media (including the idea of ‘media events’) and a diverse if somewhat fragmented scholarship that adopts a more radical position. Notably, the latter envisages a paradigmatic shift to a new media ecology (NME) that necessitates a critical re-evaluation of the legacy of mass communication/media studies, and proposes a more dynamic and diffused model of ‘the mediation of everything’. (1)

It occurs to me that these two conceptual overhangs of ‘collective memory’ and ‘mass media’ are connected. Notably, the paradigms if they can be identified as such are both fundamentally undermined by radical connectivity. For example, in relation to the media, William Merrin (2008) provides an excellent and detailed characterisation of a paradigm shift from mass media to a new post-broadcast age. Here is just a short extract:

‘In place of a top-down, one-to-many vertical cascade from centralised industry sources we discover today bottom-up, many-to-many, horizontal, peer-to-peer communication. ‘Pull’ media challenge ‘push’ media; open structures challenge hierarchical structures; micro-production challenges macro-production; open-access amateur production challenges closed access, elite-professions; economic and technological barriers to media production are transformed by cheap, democratised, easy-to-use technologies.’ (2)

At the same time, in relation to memory, the continual emergence of sets of ‘new’ pasts, a ‘new memory’ challenges unified or unifying ‘collective’ orientations to the past. This includes the media of memory. So, for instance, the idea of the static and material archive as a permanent place of storage, is being undermined by the much more fluid temporalities and dynamics of ‘permanent data transfer’ (3) or at least ‘networked’ for reactivation at any time. Indeed, a ‘diffused memory’ is a living memory that is articulated through the everyday digital connectivity of the self (with others and with the past) that can be continually produced, accessed and updated, but which is also subject to different although nonetheless highly significant modes of ‘forgetting’. To provide one example, recent research shows that a good deal of associations on Facebook, are not active and interactional, but passive in terms of the archiving and storing of relational encounters with the potential to be reactivated. (4) In this way social networking sites facilitate a continuous, accumulating, dormant memory, with ongoing potential to transform past relations through the re-activation of latent and semi-latent connections.

Collective memory and mass media as foundational forms for their respective disciplines are both undermined by the new contingencies and complexities of connectivity. Yet what I am identifying as the ‘connective turn’ is not just the new temporal and spatial flux shaping an emergent NME, but it is also the clash of philosophies over the very nature, pace, extent, and value of the ushering in of the digital. Of course, there is some deep convergence ongoing between that presented here as dichotomous broadcast and post-broadcast cultures and medias. Ultimately, however, the medias that produce, reproduce, and remediate increasingly digital content, contribute to a more fluid, diffused and unpredictable media/memory ecology.

Moreover, the kinds of debates around ‘collective memory’ and ‘mass media’ are prohibitively generational, in the academy as well as much more widely. Rather, it is the profound shift in the underlying structure of the common experiences – what Ingrid Volkmer terms the ‘entelechy’ (5) – of those ‘born digital’ (6) that requires our attention. Notably, those who are socialised in the NME, in which media production and consumption have become de-differentiated, circumvent or at least re-configure that which Margalit argues is central to the forming of ‘shared memory’, namely ‘mnemonic labour’ (7) thus, a digital network memory.

Some sociologists distinguish between a ‘collective’ and ‘collected’ memory, but nonetheless often fail to state what the threshold for such a constituency might be. Most conceptualisations of this term, ‘describe exclusively institutional manifestations of collective memory’. (8) In this way it is the quantitative as well as the qualitative vagueness of collective memory that has helped to ease its establishment as an ill-defined yet defining concept. One way forward is to extract from the work of Karin Knorr Cetina to see the phenomena here as ‘based on microstructural principles [which] do not exhibit institutional complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction patterns’. (9) It is more useful, then, to develop this idea to speak of ‘diffused’ media, memory, war etc. Indeed, diffusion is the new complexity.ü


  1. Livingstone, Sonia (2009), ‘On the Mediation of Everything’, Journal of Communication, 59(1): 1-18.
  2. Merrin, William (2008), ‘Media Studies 2.0’, at:
  3. Ernst, Wolfgang (2004), ‘The Archive As Metaphor’, Open, 7: 46-43.
  4. Richardson, Kathleen and Hessey, Sue (2009), ‘Archiving the self? Facebook as biography of social and relational memory’, Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 7(1): 25-38.
  5. Volkmer, Ingrid (Ed.) (2006), News in Public Memory: An International Study of Media Memories across Generations, New York: Peter Lang.
  6. Palfrey, John and Gasser, Urs (2008), Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, New York: Basic Books.
  7. Margalit, Avishai (2002), The Ethics of Memory, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Beim, Aaron (2007), ‘The Cognitive Aspects of Collective Memory’, Symbolic Interaction, 30(1): 7-26.
  9. Knorr Cetina, Karin (2005), ‘Complex global microstructures: The new terrorist societies, Theory, Culture & Society, 22(5): 213-234.


‘In the emergent field of memory studies, ‘collective memory’ remains a hugely influential concept. A legacy of the era of mass media, this concept is now challenged by the theoretical demands of the new, post-broadcast age, with its contingencies and complexities of connectivity.’

Andrew Hoskins is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of the Warwick Centre for Memory Studies ( He is founding editor-in-chief of the Sage Journal of ‘Memory Studies’ ( and his latest book, ‘Save As... Digital Memories’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), is co-edited with Joanne Garde-Hansen and Anna Reading.


Dr Andrew Hoskins

Department of Sociology