Digital relics of our former selves

I have a very, very low ICQ number (670140). The problem is, I can’t login to access it anymore, as the email address tied to it is long, long gone.

For people of a certain age like me, who came of age on the internet in the late 90s/early 2000s and at the end of dial-up and the lowering of walled gardens like AOL/Prodigy/Compuserve, there is a whole portion of the internet, of our younger lives, that seems to be gone forever.

We were the people who shared our of-the-moment thoughts in AIM away messages. We would spin up a new blog on Xanga, with no expectation of an audience, doing it just because we wanted to. Social media wasn’t the omnipresent force it is today, and we would just write and share, love and laugh with strangers or friends, as we settled ourselves in this emerging digital world.

To be in your teens or 20s back then was to feel like an explorer, discovering new places to express and be yourself without thought of engagement or follows or anything like that. Sure, it was nice if someone read and commented on your post but how great was it discovering a real-life friends LiveJournal and really getting a feeling of what made them, them ? We were young, we were free, and we were traipsing everywhere to plant our flag on our tiny little corner of this awesome new thing called the Internet.

Reminiscing over the old days of social media now is like the “Old Man yells at cloud” meme from The Simpsons, and that’s not what this post is about. Rather, what I’m realizing now as I become that old man yelling at the actual Cloud, is that a key part of my digital life is gone forever.

We tell our kids today that “what goes on the internet, stays on the internet” and in many ways that’s 100% true. Most social media sites let you archive and export your data; the Wayback Machine keeps an ungodly amount of information. If you post something today, it’s likely to remain online for a long, long time.

But what about the ephemeral stuff, the things that would be called “content” today but was really just a text file back then?

Where are our AIM chat logs, our ICQ conversations with now-deceased friends and long broken-up with ex’s? Did anyone ever save those IRC chats with the Quake “clan” you used to spend weekends playing at LAN parties with? Probably not.

It all just disappeared as these services merged, got bought, shut down or just changed business focus, users be damned. Today, our phones can hold 10x as many pictures as our computers at the time ever could, but in those days even if you were lucky enough to have a digital camera, you didn’t take many pictures and what you did take were shit.

Maybe if you dig hard enough, you can turn up a copy of your first website, or remember the password to that long forgotten but somehow still up blogging service, so you can frantically delete your bad poetry from your first relationship, but probably not. You’ve moved through too many computers, devices or just plain moved and threw away your Password Book (remember those?) to ever find that info again.

Humans have never been able to save every scrap of detail about our lives of course. Billions of people have come and gone on Earth with barely a record of their existence. But today, most of the world is sharing and saving and posting everything they can, as if we are all doing it like we are running out of time and there is just so.much.stuff . We’ve made so much that we can never truly know what we have.

And yet having become digitally aware before all of that, before we the world truly went over the waterfall of the Internet, is very bittersweet. People younger than me now can remember it all because everyone works to remember and the pieces are all there. But I can’t.

Admittedly, a lot of the stuff back then would probably make us all cringe today, and most wouldn’t ever really be worth saving. But I wish I could at least look, at least have the opportunity to curate it. I might be able to find a scrap of something here, an old screenshot there, but that’s it – the rest is all gone.

We tend to think of a relic as something old, from long ago. But a relic can also mean something cherished or prized. For me, those relics from 20+ years ago exist only in vague memories, in “remember posting on ____” conversations, and will never be something tangible again like you get from exporting your Twitter tweets archive.

In some ways it’s better now than back then, to be drowning in a record of ourselves, but to me it will always feel incomplete. There is no “memories” suggestion on my phone for what I was chatting about or listening to in 2002, because no one (including ourselves) ever thought to save it. And I’ve come to accept it I guess, knowing that part of me won’t really be around for someone to know, but it still leaves at least a small hole in me in making up who I am.

Today, I hoard digital pictures of my kids, putting them online in a private place but also backed up to my phone, hard drive and a remote cloud service. Not just because they are pictures of them growing up, but because I know what happens if you don’t take the time to save stuff like that. How quickly we can lose the ephemeral parts of our day to day lives that don’t mean anything then, but could mean the world to us later, without even realizing that it’s gone.