Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Email Eulogy

My email has six months to live.

The community network that hosts my personal email account is discontinuing their email service at the end of this year. This is a bummer for many reasons. First of all, because it was a small, non-profit organization, I was able to get a very simple email address: I love having such a short and simple handle. It's my name and it's my address. There's no way I could join one of the big free web-based mail systems and snatch the same thing. It will have to be something like tim_statboy2571 or some other ridiculously long handle. (In fact, gmail requires at least six characters, so my three-letter name isn't even theoretically possible.)

I still have the first message I ever sent with this address. It was on October 14, 2002, and I sent it to my (then) girlfriend. I know it was the first message because the first line read: "This is my very first message from my new email address!"

Ever the anal, archiving librarian, I've saved most of my electronic correspondence in various folders over the past six years. It's an archive of my life, as presented to various people through letters, notes, invitations, flirtations, and arguments.

There are currently 30 folders in my email account. Whenever I start emailing with someone who I think is going to be a significant correspondent, I will create a new folder for that person. Some of these folders never really get going and the correspondence sputters out after only 4 or 5 messages. (That's the risk of premature foldering.) Some of them were very active for a time, but have died out for various reasons. I continue to build on the "active" folders, which range in size from 6 to 309 messages. The 309-message folder is for a friend of mine from library school, and we have been emailing each other since the beginning of this account. Most of my active "friends" folders range in size from 71 to 128 messages. Some are old friends who I just don't write very often, and some are ones I've made in the last year who I correspond with a lot.

I also have thematic folders that don't refer to a certain person, but an activity or event. For example, all my tennis correspondence has its own folder ("tennis", currently 271 messages), or messages from my family planning our annual reunion ("sfest", 107), or when I applied for jobs ("jobsearch," 40). I even have one for family arguments that have flared up over the years, titled "feud" (116.)

There's a generic "saved-messages" folder (201) that came with the account, and I put stuff in there that doesn't really warrant its own folder. Sometimes the things in there are in limbo-- waiting to see if there are enough messages on a certain topic to create a new folder.

But the granddaddy of all my folders, the one that dwarfs all the others and is larger than the next six largest folders combined, is the one titled "rebecca." It has 1,162 messages in it. We met online, and although we lived in the same city, she was traveling and doing research, off and on, for the first three months of our courtship. The first month alone we logged 128 messages to each other. In the second month we set a record of 11 messages exchanged in one day, and logged another 133 for the month. From there, our monthly message count declined, as we moved in together, got engaged, got married, and then broke-up. But all four and a half years of our relationship are chronicled through our emails.

All four of the women I've loved have their own folders, since I've been in contact with each of them over the past six years (two of them while we were together, and two of them during the post-breakup friendship.) My most recent ex-girlfriend, the one who received the very first message from this account (see above), got up to 99 messages, but we haven't had any contact in five years. My first girlfriend has exactly 100 in her folder, but that could increase since we're still in contact. Girlfriend #2's folder stopped at 59, ever since she abruptly cut off contact with me about four years ago.

Anyway, this thrilling discussion of the demographics of my email folders aside, the main point I wanted to make is that there is a lot of personal history in this email account. I can go back to almost any date over the past six years and get a slice of what was going on in my life, as presented to this or that person.

Ten years ago I had a transatlantic relationship with a German girl who was living in Poland for a year (girlfriend #2.) We emailed each other almost every day, and at the end of the year I printed out our email correspondence to keep for posterity. The stack of printouts is about three inches high, and every once in a while I will go back and read it. The sweet talk, the discussions, the reports of our everyday comings and goings, the fights, the drama, and the countdowns until we see each other again. It's all there, and it tells a great story.

A few years ago I started going through the "rebecca" folder and copying all the messages into a text program, so that I could save them for family history. This file tells a lot of the story of How Wet Met. I hadn't worked on this project for over a year, and now, with the news of my email account dying, I'll have to make a decision to either give it up or finish it. I don't plan to copy all 1162 messages, but probably the first few months of messages are worth keeping. They do tell a story, even if the story ultimately doesn't have a happy ending.

As for the other 29 folders in my email account, I will hate to see them go. But there's no way I can save all of them, or even if I should. I will need to find a new email address, probably through gmail, and will start the process of saving messages all over again. It's what I do.

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