Future Scholars Discover Trove of Early-21st-Century Correspondence: OMG!

Posted on February 15, 2013


Our Valentine’s Week of Letters is drawing to a close today.  We have celebrated the beauty, durability, and deep sentiment of the hand-written word, and we have lamented the impending loss of it now that schools are no longer teaching cursive.  Much of today’s youth sees no reason to master any form of handwriting, eschewing it in favor of keyboards and touchscreens.  Is that really a big deal?

I’d like to explore an insightful comment left by Robert on Monday’s article:

Weeks before dying from a terminal illness, my mother handed me a shoe-box filled with the cherished letters of her life. She directed me to wait a year – until, she hoped, the pain of her passing would have subsided a bit – and then to read her letters with a good bottle of scotch and box of Kleenex within reach. As I expected, there were some wonderful lessons for me in the shoe-box – my family Rosetta Stone – as well as letters I had written as a child to my mother with her thoughts and wishes for me etched in the margins. I have since warned my daughter that a body of email correspondence, filled with banal OMG’s and LOL’s, will not make it into anyone’s Gallery of Memories. My message was apparently lost in translation. She now emails less and texts more. Hers will be the Lost Generation.

I think Robert is on to something:  the utter banality of today’s electronic correspondence, compared to the deeper, meatier, more newsy correspondence of yesteryear.  I think the reason for this is that when one can instantly send off short notes and stay in near-constant electronic contact, the content is inevitably far more mundane.

Think of it:  when the Pre-Internet People lived together day in, day out, they did not immortalize their every twitch and sneeze; even diaries of old were more confined to the highlights of the day, and not punctuated with “banal OMG’s and LOL’s” as Robert puts it.  Letters were compilations of newsworthy material for the recipient… the most worthy mentions of a few days, a week, a month.  And without word processors, people had to actually compose their thoughts before writing.  What a difference that makes!  The results are coherent, articulate, and meaningful.

Scholars researching the human experience of a particular era treasure people’s diaries and correspondence as a direct voice from the past, a record of what it was like to live through certain times or witness certain events.  Frequently, people’s personal writings reveal a level of detail that would be otherwise lost to history.

With that in mind, how do we picture future scholars mining personal records in search of information about the human experience of the Information Age?  Most of us don’t print out our emails or blog posts.  And yet… after death, a person’s Internet presence does linger.  For how long?  As Rob Walker explores in the New York Times, Internet accounts that lapse due to inactivity or non-payment soon become unusable, unless friends or heirs step in to keep the deceased’s digital presence going.  But suppose one’s accounts do lapse, as they certainly must eventually.  Then what happens to the data itself?


This blog… and all your emails, tweets, and posts… reside in various places like this. Our Internet permanence depends on what others decide to keep, not what we decide to keep.

If it is stored, it is likely on a server somewhere… until that server’s owner needs to free up space, or goes out of business, or the server becomes obsolete, or breaks, or… well, servers don’t last forever, and migrating data to a new server is tedious.  Storage can get expensive, too, whether we’re talking about data files or the physical “box” in a warehouse or data-processing facility.   I suspect that eventually, the vast majority of our posts, emails, and comments will disintegrate in a recycling process, whether that means reformatting servers or physically destroying them to recover materials.  It will take a while, but in the end, I suspect that the gargantuan amount of information we are producing today will largely disappear.  As I noted to Robert, I fear that he is right. Today’s generation, generations from now, will be a blank, silent name just like any other in the cemetery.

But perhaps all is not lost.  Perhaps future scholars will occasionally stumble upon a treasure trove of 100-year-old servers stored in some forgotten corner.  With luck and skill and knowledge of our archaic systems, they will extract whatever fragments of data they can, resurrect our words and thoughts, and ponder what it all means about the human experience of the early 21st century.  The question is:  What will our own communications reveal about us to our descendants?  OMG!