This article was initially published in Doublethink magazine, the official magazine of America’s Future Foundation. It was also featured on Mike Church radio show.
The spread of literacy in the 16th century, amid a burgeoning production of paper, ushered in letter writing as a new form of communication. Over the following few centuries, countless letters of personal correspondence were written and left behind for future generations.
The letters collectively construct a very important part of our history because they reveal stories in ways a historian can never fully grasp and recite. Through the correspondence of Christopher Columbus with the royal treasurer of Spain, we knew about his first impressions in America – which he called “islands of India.” From Michelangelo’s letters, we knew how he viewed his own artwork, confidently negotiating and promising the architect of the Vatican that “if it is carried out, there will be nothing to equal it the world over.” We inherited personal letters written by historical figures who belonged to all backgrounds and walks of life, among them are scientists (e.g. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Galileo), psychologists (e.g. Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud), poets (e.g. Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett), philosophers (e.g. Voltaire and Marx), novelists (e.g. Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelly and Oscar Wilde) and political leaders (e.g. Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan). Needless to say that millions of ordinary people around the globe passed down their familial and amorous letters through multiple generations. In an era where written communication is mainly electronic and the personal letter has been replaced by email and social network messages, our generation will be the first in more than half a millennium to leave virtually no hand-written letters behind for future generations to read, study and analyze. “But so what?” – you might ask, “let the digital replace the physical.”
Recent experience has proven that digital storage is less reliable than you might expect. Founded in 2002, Friendster was a pioneer of social networking, and a model for MySpace and later Facebook. Its popularity waned over the years as users migrated to rival online hangouts turning it into a ghost town. In April 2011, they announced that they would cease to exist as a social network, soon-relaunching as a social gaming platform and they warned that all messages, photos and other digital content of their 115 million users would be deleted by the end of June 2011 (originally, to the chagrin of many members, the date was May 31). They encouraged their members to use their tool, Friendster Exporter, to download a copy of their old data before the deadline.
Today, there is no way to retrieve your data, if you were a Friendster member who missed the story on the news (as many did) and didn’t receive the email notification which they claimed was sent to all members (many reportedly never received it as was evident from blog comments and tweets). Also, you’re in the same situation if you were among the helpless users who encountered technical issues with their exporter tool. Strangely, Friendster support for its users seems superior compared to AltaVista’s who announced in February 2002 the shut-down of their email service by the end of the following month. No options or tools to export emails were provided for the subscribers and later all emails in the 400,000 accounts were erased forever.
The ephemeral nature of text-based digital communication should be regarded as an important cultural issue. We have always been fascinated by how people used to live in the past. We dig up artifacts, decipher dead languages, study ancient texts and even exhume dead bodies in order to piece together pictures of our ancestors’ lives. But we treat our old electronic letters (i.e. emails) like a pesky nuisance, so much so that it’s not considered a tragedy if one loses access to them, or if they were permanently deleted by the email provider. After all they’re seen as disposable waste, like many other products in our throw-away society. But over time, emails could become a historical source that can be used in the far future to help reconstruct a particular moment in our human story. They’re as valuable as papyrus manuscripts and historical letters on display in libraries and museums today. Emails, like the letters of the past, record our hopes, dreams and fears, our struggles, successes and failures. They reflect important personal events, as well as global events and their impact on our daily lives. Our electronic letters might contain acronyms like OMG – “oh my God!” – rather than those found in old Latin letters such as D.V. (Deo Volente, “as God willing”) but they’re still equal in historical and literary value. At first glance, such emails peppered with net slang like LOL and WTF might not seem worthy of preservation but to the contrary, they should be saved for various reasons, among which is that within 100 years or so, as some linguists speculate, humans might look back at our present era as one where the English language started to drastically evolve due to the influence of the Internet.
In order to preserve emails, the non-tech savvy should be able to easily export their emails in a free, open format, that’s readable regardless of the hardware or the operating system. Also, they shouldn’t need to resort to third-party applications (many of which are not free) in order to export and download their emails.
Technically speaking, this is not a complicated feature to develop as part of the email service but for many years it hasn’t been a priority for corporations. However, recently there have been signs of a strategic change. Google, for example, is taking this issue so seriously that they formed a team of engineers in June 2011 with the revolutionary name Data Liberation Front whose main job is to give you the functionality to get your data out of their plethora of services “in an open, interoperable, portable format.”
In spite of their efforts, it seems that the so-called Web 2.0 companies, Facebook and Twitter, are moving faster towards a solution than the old Tech behemoths including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo. Since 2010, Facebook allowed its members to download a full archive that contains all messages, photos and posts, and you can view your old messages in a free and open format: HTML. Similarly, based on Twitter’s CEO announcements to New York Times reporters, within a few months, users will have a built-in tool to download all their past tweets.
The basic challenge for email preservation today, as in the case with Gmail and Yahoo, is that you’re required to use third-party software (e.g. Microsoft Outlook, Mozilla Thunderbird or Eudora) to download your emails. Additionally, you need some understanding of network protocols (such as IMAP and POP) in order to set up an email client to access the mail server. Regardless, downloading your emails into another program will not solve the issue as you still have to convert them to an open and free format.
The best third-party applications with file conversion options are not free. Hotmail lets you export your emails using the default Print function of your browser into XPS format (which has been positioned by Microsoft as a PDF competitor) but it’s a Windows format, therefore it will be problematic viewing your emails within another operating system.
Ideally, email service providers would allow their users to:
- Download the whole email account or individual emails (you might want to exclude unsolicited or spam emails).
- Maintain the same folder structure of the email account (Inbox, Sent, etc.) and also download attachments.
- Export emails in one of several open file formats (e.g. PDF or HTML).
- Provide an option to delete emails off the mail servers once the download is complete.
A historian’s glimpse into the past is not the only reason why emails should be preserved. Another reason is the nostalgic one explaining why we don’t erase our old digital photos. There’s a sentimental value associated with your emails. Decades from now, you might want to share them with your children or grandchildren, or simply leave your family and friends some emails after you pass away showing your journey through life.
That’s the actual reason why many Friendster members felt angry and heartbroken. In the words of NYT’s Jenna Wortham, they lost “a time capsule with snapshots of who they once were…a version of their history that is not in a scrapbook or dusty shoebox but is live on the Web.”
Some lament the fact that people don’t keep diaries anymore; however from my perspective your inbox is your diary. Every email is akin to an entry in that diary. The only difference is that your diary is a dialogue with yourself rather than others; nevertheless both record the same intimate views on your daily experiences. The epistolary art is not dead. It just resides in an impermanent electronic medium, waiting to be saved for the future.
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