Digital Baggage

Photo by Markus Spiske on

How old is your email address?

The oldest email in my inbox right now is from late 2008, so that makes it at least 12 years. A dozen years of all kinds of thing I have been involved in, interested in, enquired about, discussed with friends. A dozen years of events, gigs, travel, films — although maybe not all of these things have had online tickets available for all that time. A dozen years of job applications, competitions, emails from long-lost friends seeking to reconnect, pictures of pets who are no longer with us. Emails with people who are no longer in our lives. Emails about why those people are no longer in our lives.

How many of us have such digital baggage that we, in a sense, carry around?

Leaving our emails sitting there and growing into an endless inbox is the default. Letting Gmail & co. save our messages in perpetuity requires no action from us, while deleting them would. Which emails do we keep and which do we delete? You could take weeks or months of your life to get your digital house in order and get down to Inbox Zero, but who has time for that? If you haven’t been deleting as you went (and let’s be honest, how many of us were that clever?), by now you likely have thousands of emails to deal with.

A while ago, I realised I still had a ton of emails between my ex and me in my inbox. Years of our relationship, the early days, the time we spent living in separate cities, the time we moved in together, the time I left the country, the time we were breaking up. And everything in between.

Even being on good terms with him today, I realised I felt really uncomfortable about some of those emails. It was a different life, a different me. But there were so many. Just thinking about sorting through them, looking to see if maybe I could learn something from my own emails or his, it was just too overwhelming. Eventually, one day I simply filtered on his email address and deleted everything.

We’re not meant to have such detailed records of our intimate ups and downs years later — in perpetuity, if you ask Gmail, Facebook & co. And of course they not only save messages from other people, they neatly save our own with them in organised threads so it allll there, in one place. Good for their business model, no doubt, but is it good for us?

When I broke up with my first boyfriend, I tore up all his letters and threw them in a dumpster (before you ask, it was for paper only). It felt good to let go. Getting rid of them made sense because they were physical objects I didn’t want to literally carry around as I moved addresses. It would take me much longer to realise I should do the same with emails from a later ex.

In the Olden Days™, letters would be all you had, and maybe not that many of them at that. You might have a small bundle of envelopes tied up that you could easily dispose of (perhaps in a fireplace, if you’re feeling theatrical). Meanwhile, nowadays… oof. I imagine even Marie Kondo would give up if she saw my inbox.

As we mature into the internet age, this issue will probably come up more and more. And we’ll have to make a decision. Do we want to carry around a record of our past in unprecedented detail, or is there something to be said for how things once were — a few letters, maybe some diaries, and our own memories?

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