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

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 moving increasing amounts of communication online, they could find their memory impacted, both in how well it preserves information, and what the mind remembers in the first place.

The effect of technology on our memory is a contested area of research, in part because we understand so little of how the brain works and what it’s capable of. I wrote back in January that the impact of social media on our memories is multifold. First, the act of committing something to external memory — for example, by photographing it — informs your brain that because the information in the photograph is stored somewhere else (in the camera, in the photo, on your blog, or your Photobucket), your brain is less responsible for retaining that information. In the moment, because you’re more focused on taking a photo than on absorbing your surroundings, you’re missing out on a lot of context that’s taking place outside the boundaries of the photo.

Say you’re in a park with friends. You take a photo of Maria and John, but Dan has run to find a restroom when you take the picture. You might forget that Dan was ever there, because the photo inscribed that memory for you — the picnic consisted of you, Maria, and John. The camera forgot Dan, and, hence, so did you.

It’s likely that online, text-based communication creates similar troubles with memory as photography does. Phubbing, or “phone snubbing,” can make you less aware of what’s going on around you, because you’re paying attention to your phone instead of the person in front of you. Even simply having a smartphone nearby negatively affects your cognitive capabilities. As with depending on a photo to remember a moment for you, depending on an email thread or online chat to remember a relationship or conversation for you means you’re less likely to remember the events on your own.

This is not the worst thing, if you retain access to whatever online storage unit is keeping those memories for you. These memories may be “impoverished,” Linda Henkel, a psychologist who studies memory, told me for my Elemental story about social media and memory, because online spaces are flatter and less rich in sensory cues that make up memories of physical experiences. Still, going back to old Myspace photo albums or AIM conversations can take you back to those early friendships and romances. A mention of a weekend camping trip with a friend in an email thread can trigger further memories of the experience. A photo of a teenage self posing in a prom outfit can provoke a flood of recollections about the crush you had at the time.

But if you lose access to these virtual memory spaces, some of those memories might go out with it. I have absolutely no idea how to regain access to my Photobucket, the once-popular website that serves as an online storage space for people’s photos, because it’s linked to an old Yahoo email account to which I can’t remember the credentials. Photos I kept there — of the two months I spent in France when I was 13, of the friends I’d hang out with at the park next to the church in high school — are not gone, but lost. Theoretically, lost things can someday be found. But for those of us who no longer remember ridiculous passwords, nonsensical security question answers, or even which of our many emo-sounding email accounts we used as login credentials (was it thegh0st0fu@hotmail.com or m00nandantarctica@yahoo.com?), some lost memories may never be fully recovered.

Courtney Faust, an insurance underwriter based in Philadelphia, had both a personal Myspace page as well as Myspace and Photobucket fanpages dedicated to Taylor Swift before she got big.

“I really wish I could go back and reread those posts,” she says. “The Taylor Swift Myspace is private because I didn’t want anyone ‘breaking’ my news before me. Now I regret that. I can only see a profile picture and that fanpage was my life for five years. Word to the wise: When you’re 18, don’t change your email every five seconds because there is a cool new saying/song you like. You’ll definitely lose track of what email and passwords have the good stuff attached to them.”

Anthony Naglieri, the D.C.-based chief of staff at a consumer goods company, says his youthful habit of changing his AIM screen names has made it difficult to get into any of them. “I’ve always wanted to relive some of the nostalgia and confusion of being a teenager/college-age student by seeing those logs and/or emails,” he says. Though he did manage to get into one account, “I have never managed to get into one that I think would have yielded the most embarrassing and incriminating lens into my adolescence.”

This is more important than it might sound. What people find if they seek — and gain — access to their old accounts could be beneficial to their mental health. Until the 1970s, researchers considered nostalgia as a condition one suffered, more bitter than sweet. Recent research, however, finds that moderate nostalgia for one’s own past can help a person deal with change and reinforce a sense of self, acting as a reminder of how one has changed, and remained the same, throughout their life.

“Since people began socially isolating in mid-March, we’ve certainly seen young adults flock back to their old Tumblr accounts for nostalgic comfort and memories of their younger selves,” a Tumblr spokesperson told me. This might be why people are feeling particularly nostalgic right now: We’re in the midst of an immense historical transition, so looking to dwell in the silly, romantic, and innocent memories of our youth is a totally natural, and possibly beneficial, way to cope.

The bad news is that there’s no real trick to getting access to those old accounts. Microsoft reviews recovery requests for old Hotmail accounts here, and AOL has a username recovery form here, though multiple people told me they’ve failed to get into their old AIM accounts. For most other platforms, though, if you don’t remember your login credentials, such as a password, the answers to security questions, or have access to a linked account, it’s pretty much impossible to get back in. This makes sense, since hacks and impersonations are arguably more consequential issues than a desire to stroll down memory lane. But this privacy comes at a high cost, since that virtual memory lane hosts evidence of so many moments that make up the foundation of our personal histories.

Europe’s Right to Be Forgotten law allows EU residents to request platforms delete their personal data, though it doesn’t guarantee that those residents will regain access first. This is helpful, as the name demonstrates, if you are European and you want to forget. There’s nothing the law can do to help you remember.

The best, but less satisfying, solution is to do more to proactively protect our memories going forward. That might include finally signing up for a password manager. Maybe that means, I don’t know, buying a printer (get a Brother) and actually printing out especially meaningful emails and storing them in a box with other little keepsakes. Maybe that means setting up a forwarding email account, just in case you lose access to the main inbox. And maybe it means, just a little bit — letting go.

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.

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