Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment, but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.
The people in our family have always hoarded personal mementos. Correspondence, photos, interesting lists, old membership cards and random but significant bits of paper – we have thrown these haphazard fragments of personal history into cardboard boxes, under beds and in drawers. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sorting through forty years of these memory boxes.
Among them, I discovered perhaps the first recorded account of my thirteen year old self winding up my five year old brother. I was at boarding school at the time, and written letters were my main connection to home. The distance taught us the value of letter writing, between each other, family and friends. Given that we kept most of these letters, I was able to eventually piece together this incident from three perspectives, with letters from my mother providing a third perspective. His response to my paper trolling was assertive while at the same time, totally adorable and generous. And my mother’s intervention demonstrated her humorous side in how she decided to adjudicate the situation.
Looking back on correspondence from the past has been fun, comforting and enlightening. It documents so much about our family and our relationships with each other. Old letters have been a joy to look through and reminisce over, sometimes providing a reminder of situations that I hadn’t thought about for years. Sometimes, they recount events that I have no memory of at all.
I’m not sure when I stopped writing letters, however my brother continued to be an avid correspondent with ink and paper.
It was a significant occasion when he got his first email account as I had been encouraging him to do so for a while. In one of his many boxes, I uncovered a printed copy of our first email conversation from the late 1990s.
The email address I was using at that time was also my first email account, which until a fortnight or so ago I hadn’t thought about in ten years. But after trying to access it again to look for any other emails between us, I discovered that the email provider had been acquired, renamed and that my account no longer existed.
Not only have I lost this period of history, I’ve lost messages from the future. For example, at the opening of the London Millennium Dome, visitors were asked to provide their email addresses accompanied by a short message before leaving the exhibition. The Dome said they would send these notes back to their owners decades later as a reminder of what they had been thinking about that day.
I won’t receive that obnoxious message from my younger self outlining what a disappointment I felt the Dome had been and I suspect few of the thousands of visitors to the Dome will receive theirs. Given most people will have changed their email address at least once since then, I imagine the bounce rate on that particular mailout – if they even bother – will be close to 100%. Yet in my boxes of memories I still have the postcard and novelty over sized pencil that I bought from the Dome gift shop, items that on face value are junk but they’ve served a purpose of sparking distinct memories of that day.
My point is that I’ve consistently kept physical mementos, while I haven’t applied the same consideration to digital history and correspondence. I have a rich mine of private correspondence which provides a recorded history up to my early 20s. But as soon as I moved to email, it almost immediately runs dry, as my communications quickly moved online.
A fifteen year gap to now clearly demonstrates a casual attitude toward personal email archiving. Of course, notes and correspondence have been captured in other ways, for instance on Facebook and even MySpace walls or apps such as Foursquare or Twitter. But these tend to be public interactions so their nature is less personal.
In the past decade, I’ve moved from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use, as well as a multitude of work email addresses. Unfortunately, some of these accounts are now lost and no longer accessible. The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to archive personal conversations as they happen. Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.
While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent archiving experience has highlighted the value of a system – even one that is chaotic and ad-hoc – to continually capture personal messages and notes so they aren’t lost to my future self. A new way of communicating requires a new way of archiving. For the email accounts I can still access, I plan to rummage through them like old cardboard boxes and recover personal conversations. Maybe, I’ll be able to re-connect with people from the past.
If you do a search on email archiving, there’s plenty of advice on how to manage old accounts and email management. Here’s a wrap of articles that I’ve found useful. If you have other tips to add, please do so below. All ideas are welcome.