Digital Commemoration and #RemembranceDay

As Canada marks another Remembrance Day, the purpose and value of what we remember is again hotly debated. Last year we addressed questions about the “White Poppy” movement, the history of Remembrance Day, and why we imbue this day with such special significance. This year for 11 November, we want to explore the process that leads to these questions about the poppy as a symbol and Remembrance Day, as well as how it is changing in new ways.

If we step away from deciding the “what” and “why” of Remembrance Day, we can understand “how” we decide on what to commemorate together and how it is contested. The majority of Canadians probably associated the symbolism found at official commemoration ceremonies to Remembrance Day. Most experience 11 November through these ceremonies at municipal cenotaphs across the country, the national ceremony in Ottawa, or watch them on television. The dominant memory is still the one expressed there: Remembrance Day is a commemoration of our war dead. Yet this memory is not static – there is a constant friction between majority and minority views of how to remember the war. Individuals have always had their own memory, which has coalesced into different commemorations. As we discussed last year, Remembrance Day and the poppy have changed since the first anniversary of the 11 November armistice in 1919. Today this friction is expressed as some question that dominant narrative.

These questions take the form of annual discussions about what the poppy and Remembrance Day mean (or should mean). Every November, articles appear debating the form and content of how Canadians should commemorate the armistice that ended the First World War. In Canada, perhaps because of the attacks near Montreal and in Ottawa, this year there is a renewed push to make Remembrance Day a national statutory holiday and a campaign to use the #PoppyProud Twitter hashtag. Others use it to highlight the continuing fight for veterans’ mental health care after they return home. In Britain, Harry Leslie Smith told readers of the Guardian that this year would be the last time he would wear a poppy. No doubt many more will be published in the coming days.

It’s worth emphasizing that none of these are inherently right or wrong. Every individual is free to create their own meaning from history and how to remember it, be it veterans’ sacrifices, as an anti- or pro-war sentiment, an expression of national pride, or something else. Whether or not other people hold (or should hold) similar views is where the debates lies, as commentators argue that society should agree with their perspective or that it already agrees with them. In other words, we are framing the memory on Remembrance Day as an individual process, but commemoration as a collective action.  

In 2014, how we create this tapestry of memory is changing drastically. With the advent of the internet, we are exposed to more contrasting views of how to commemorate 11 November than ever. We encounter more and more variety of individual views through social media. The #PoppyProud Twitter campaign, though perhaps dismissed as superficial, is still a statement of how you choose to mark Remembrance Day. Digital commemoration occurs in ways that we have never seen before and, like the Poppy itself, it allows for remembrance removed from the “commemorative context” of ceremonies and memorials—those tangible vestiges of memory closely associated with traditional forms of commemoration. How different is seeing someone wearing a Poppy on the street to seeing an Instagram photo on your phone of a poppy field with the title, #PoppyProud? One is physical, one is digital, but both offer the same sentiment.

We encounter these digital forms of memory in far greater abundance and variety. Seeing a crowd of people with poppies on their coats is not quite the same as seeing a dozen or a hundred posts about Remembrance Day. Unlike the poppy, each can be a slightly different expression of memory. Perhaps instead of #PoppyProud, you see #WhitePoppyProud. Or an article denouncing 11 November as a celebration of war. Simply browsing your Twitter or Facebook feed can expose you to a range of different ways individuals remember Remembrance Day.

The vastness of the internet means it is more difficult to participate in monolithic collective commemoration. Instead, a collection of individual commemorations is becoming more apparent as the internet provides far more space for a diversity of views. Though we debate what wearing the Poppy means, it is largely a static symbol of collective memory. The internet offers far more fluidity. There are new ways to express yourself every month it seems, and we can see what people think via Facebook, Twitter, online articles, vines, Instagram, and who knows what else. This individuality is encouraged in, if not inherent to, the digital age.

So as the first generation that was “born digital” (those who have only lived in the digital age) enters maturity, the “what” and “why” of Remembrance Day will invariably change in ways we have not yet seen. Expressing your individual commemoration is so much easier and equally there is less authority over who decides “what is history” and “what is remembered.” How many young people today likely encounter history through Buzzfeed articles, not books, and mark Remembrance Day with Twitter hashtags, not going to a cenotaph at 11:00am? How many will there be in twenty or fifty years? Historians (or parents, or the state, for that matter) do not have the authority they once held to mediate between the audience (you) and the past (memory). Every person is their own historian, to paraphrase Carl Becker. In the future, Remembrance Day might be less a collective commemorative act and more a theme you encounter online. It could be a common hashtag or that day when everyone changes their profile pictures to a poppy or war memorial. A collective act in its own way, but far more individual in its expression.

Not that this will be an immediate or all-encompassing change. If you grimaced while reading this, you will probably be a hold-out. We should note too that historians do not have a good track record for predicting the future despite studying the past – so perhaps new ways of collective commemoration will emerge. But as memory is contested in the digital age, and we continue to debate the “right” way to observe Remembrance Day, it’s important to understand that this shift is occurring. But change is not a terrible thing. Canada has changed a lot since 1919 – we are no longer a white British Dominion focused solely on a French-English cultural divide and our membership in the Empire. Remembrance Day has always changed alongside Canada as it reflects those who remember, not those who are remembered.