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Essential Ephemera – should you keep old emails?

Sunday, November 08, 1998

As I write, John Glenn and his fellow astronauts are getting used to gravity again with the completion of their Shuttle mission. 

Amidst the discussion of Glenn’s return to space – take your pick:  heroic adventure, science experiment or publicity stunt – a small detail caught my eye.

It seems that Glenn was keeping in touch with his wife by email. On the one hand this shows how pervasive a form of communication email has become (forget ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ now it’s ‘Fwd: Top Ten things we want Samuel Jackson to say as a Jedi Knight’).

But it also raises a question about the lifespan of an email message.  What’s Mrs Glenn going to do with her extraterrestrial missives? They’ll likely sit in her inbox for ages, and then she’ll either delete them with a whole pile of junk when her mail program slows to a crawl, or she’ll put them in their own special folder, and lose them when she gets a new machine. 

We use email to keep in touch with old and distant friends, to flirt with people we hardly know, to send notes to our beloved to brighten their day at work . . .  to carry on any number of relationships that make us who we are. 

But when it comes to keeping the messages, we’re in a bind. Physical letters somehow demand preservation, and even if we don’t read them for years, we’re glad we’ve still got them. 

The same should be the case with emails. When I left my previous job, and again when I gave an old computer to my sister, I was faced with the task of removing any signs of my existence from the machines. The work-related stuff was easily deleted (who keeps memos from a former boss?), but the hundreds of useless jokes, website references and bits of trivia I’d collected seemed at once hugely useless and very important. 

These messages were snapshots of my life at various times (both the mails I’d received and the ones I’d sent), and I couldn’t throw them away. I toyed with the idea of printing them all out and storing them that way – somehow they seemed more permanent when given physical form even on fragile paper. 

But in the end I saved them onto a Zip disk, and have them still. Except I don’t feel sure that they’re really there. Not because I fear the data will be corrupted (although that’s a possibility), or that the format in which they’re saved will be unreadable to later programs (just as likely), but because it’s hard to feel nostalgic about the contents of Zip disk, however valuable its content. 

A friend of mine recently left his job, and another friend designed a spoof movie poster for his departure. The electronic version of this poster was soon bouncing round the planet as it was forwarded to people, and put up on the Web. But it was a framed printout of the file that somehow turned all the work into a real gift. 

It’s a similar problen with other images. I bought a digital camera on my arrival in America, thinking it would be a very practical way of showing people what I was up to. And so it’s proved, with rough and ready Web pages allowing me to share my experiences with my friends and family back home. But I still find it easier to think in terms of a shoebox stuffed full of photographic memories than a portion of my current hard disk (or a bit of space on a server somewhere). 

Maybe it’s just a question of adaptation, and we’ll soon come to treasure hi-tech storage media in the way we do family photo albums and collections of old letters tied with ribbons. But I’m certainly not there yet, and I doubt Mrs Glenn is either. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, November 8th, 1998)