Microprocessing

Your Teenage Email Account Is a Lost Time Capsule

If you lose access to virtual memory spaces, some of your memories might go out with it

Angela Lashbrook
OneZero
Published in
7 min readSep 16, 2020

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Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The internet is a time capsule. Like an external hard drive or a diary tucked under your mattress, the email accounts, instant messenger conversations, and blogs of our past hold nostalgic and sometimes even crucial memories. But just as an external hard drive is susceptible to file corruption and a diary might get lost in a move, we can lose access to that essential repository of memories. If you haven’t somehow preserved that information — by printing out important correspondences or forwarding your emails, for example — those memories could be lost in the ether, never to be experienced again.

“I desperately want to get into old emails to learn from my younger self, especially my more hopeful and excited writer self before the age of social networks,” says Teena Apeles, a writer based in Los Angeles. “I want to find my first ever email, I think in 1995. Who did I email? How different were those emails? How did we all communicate then?” Apeles did, in fact, think to print out several email threads before she lost access to her accounts, but they aren’t the ones she most wishes she could revisit.

The internet has weaseled itself into nearly every aspect of our communication, especially for people confined to their homes because of the pandemic. And because of the way technology has impacted our memory, losing access to that catalog of correspondence can mean those memories are essentially gone for good. As one colleague put it, it’s like “losing letters in a fire.”

While older generations — people who didn’t spend their adolescent years having hours-long conversations on AOL Instant Messenger — may have a decent reservoir of childhood memories, for those of us who did grow up online, our memories are more reliant on the platforms that hosted our young conversations and relationships. From nights spent gossiping on AIM or ICQ, diaries posted on LiveJournal and Xanga, and blossoming romances that took place in an antiquated Hotmail inbox, youth — for millennials and everyone younger — largely took place online. As more people follow in the footsteps of millennials by…

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Angela Lashbrook
OneZero

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.