Four years ago today, I was in a lockdown, and I was scared. The unassuming metropolis I loved and lived in, its massive scale delightfully incongruous with its characteristic coziness, should have been teeming with the typical Tuesday bustle of buses and boats and business, of screeching trains and screaming horns, of colleges and clicking heels and conversations and creativity; of people. But on April 16, 2013, the trains didn’t screech. The colleges were closed. The few cars that passed did so in silence. The parks and sidewalks were empty. It was as if the whole city was playing a joke, momentarily turning its storied streets into those of a ghost town, but no one was laughing. It looked the same, but it didn’t feel like Boston anymore.
The day before, a bomb exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, barely half a mile from my school. The days that followed were a blur of panicked phone calls, curfews, locked doors, news broadcasts, hugs, and little sleep. No matter how many photos I saw, how many videos I watched, it was impossible to understand that this horrifying, evil thing happened in my city, a countable number of feet away from me. It filled me with a fear unlike any I’d ever felt, equal parts terror and helplessness, a fear whose darkness was so deep it both harrowed and surprised me.
A year later, as I walked around the city on the day of the 2014 marathon, I wore my Boston Strong t-shirt in solidarity and remembrance, and wore it again in Los Angeles on April 15, 2015, the two year anniversary of the attack. Like the millennial that I am, I posted about it on Instagram with the caption: “No matter where I am, on this day, I only wear this shirt. #BostonStrong #NeverForget”
Yesterday was April 15. I didn’t wear the shirt. It didn’t even cross my mind.
Two years ago, I implored the internet to never forget the Boston bombing. Two years later, I was the one who forgot.
When I was finally reminded of it, I felt embarrassed, foolish. The bombing was a formative moment in my life. I have a newspaper clipping about it on my wall. But still, I forgot. Without fail, I feel bad for myself every year on the date my first girlfriend dumped me, but I completely forget the much more recent anniversary of a bomb blowing up by my dorm, injuring my classmates? What kind of person am I that I could let something so important slip from my memory so quickly?
I am deeply ashamed of this, and I’m not going to help my image when I say that the reason I forgot about the Boston bombing is probably because I’m not on Facebook.
Hear me out, because I’m not trying to excuse myself. For people of my generation who have grown up with social media, Facebook and other sites are where we are informed and reminded of certain types of information, like birthdays. Off hand, I can tell you the birthdays of my parents, a couple family members, and a few close friends, and that’s about it. But for me and others like me, that’s never been a problem, because I’ve always been able to log on and look up any friend's birthday in a second. Why would I go to the trouble of memorizing a detail like that when it’s perennially accessible?
I recently decided to restrict that access: in a move that some of my friends can’t quite get their heads around, I have increased my distance from social media, as I wrote about, and it’s been great for me. While I used to check all sites several times a day, I now go weeks at a time without logging on once. I realize that I miss out on some things, funny articles, invites to parties, pieces of personal news, but that hasn’t bothered me. I’m much happier this way.
But if I had logged onto any social media yesterday, I’m certain I would have been overwhelmed with posts and stories and memories from the bombing. There’s no way I could have forgotten about it, because my friends would not have forgotten.
Or would they? I wonder how many of those people who posted about the bombing yesterday actually remembered the date on their own, and how many were themselves reminded by seeing the posts of others? How many wouldn’t have known it was that anniversary if Timehop hadn’t shown them one of their photos from four years ago? How many saw something and said to themselves, Wow, that’s today?
I would hope they all remembered of their own accord. I would hope that if everyone stopped using Twitter right now, we’d all still remember the bombing next year and every year. But I don’t think we would, not enough of us, and not without prompting. I doubt we’ll be forgetting 9/11 anytime soon, but will we remember Pearl Harbor or our best friends' wedding anniversaries or our grandparents' death dates without relying on a notification? I’m not the type of person to forget these things, and the fact that I did suggests to me that others have, too. And that’s troubling.
Maybe the correct response to this is that social media and information technologies have given us a way to remember what we need, when we need it, and devote more brain space to other, more pressing business. But I don’t see it that way. I think we’ve gotten lazy and that the ubiquity of social media has allowed us to be so, which isn’t a problem until you take the media out of the equation and realize there's less left over than you would have liked to think. As much as we love and appreciate and are benefitted by technology, we shouldn’t define ourselves by it, and I find it unsettling that this quintessentially human trait of reverence and remembrance is fading because of convenience.
Of course, maybe there is no problem at all and I’m projecting my shortcomings on the populace. Maybe it’s somewhere in-between. All I know for sure is that it's made me feel lousy.
I’m not calling for everyone to get off Facebook, because that’s just not going to happen. But I am positing that in this age of optimization and efficiency and automated reminders, we (okay, I) be more mindful of the things technology can’t—or shouldn’t—be responsible for, and assume that responsibility ourselves. Because if the internet goes bust, I’ll still want to remember and pay respect to the important pieces of my past. And to get birthday cards.