Nostalgia on the Servers: Chronicling My Cloud Dependence

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Relying on the cloud is just so irresistibly efficient -- but there are obvious dangers associated with digital file keeping.

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Several years ago, I started saving voicemails from my mother. It was an odd thing to do, especially for someone who continually grumbles for her mom to stop leaving messages that just say "call me." It was during one of those rare checks, where I would have to listen to five unheard and unessential messages to get to the one that mattered, when I was suddenly hit by a sense of mortality. My mom's message, from several weeks earlier and never listened to, wondering where I was, how I was doing, hoping I was OK -- it meant something. I pressed 9 to save, instead of 7 to delete.

If you knew me, you would know that I have trouble throwing things away. I'm not a hoarder, but I develop attachments to various objects and hold on to them: I keep memory boxes of ticket stubs, matchbooks, seashells and other souvenirs from the places I've been -- even napkins, like one from the famous Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, where I drank Irish coffee before a Giants game in 2009. I save celebratory bottle corks; I have a bracelet a young man gave me at a concert in Los Angeles; I held on to a lobster cracker from an exceptional meal on Cape Cod. There are Mardi Gras beads and bus notes. I keep calendar books that serve as a record of milestones -- the night I met my boyfriend, for example (after a football game, which is penciled in); the first time I sent the magazine I founded to press, at dawn on the chilly morning of October 2, 2008; the day I moved to New York -- whenever I want to reminisce. It's a habit I developed as a child, when my best friend and I shared our memento collection and traded custody of it back and forth. Back then I was even sentimental about objects in my own house; when my dad rearranged the furniture in our living room, I cried.

So for someone who continues accumulating keepsakes -- finding more boxes and tins to tuck them into (despite the limited space of her New York City apartment) -- the so-called cloud represents several opportunities: to save mementos in digital form and therefore space, and to keep oh so much more. Since I opened a Gmail account, I've been systematically keeping digital records of sentimental conversations and experiences with family, friends, boyfriends and others. (In high school, I used to print out meaningful AIM conversations, like one I had with a crush, before AIM began saving chat records.) I sort meaningful e-mails into folders -- plane tickets go under travel, serving as reminders of where I went and when; complimentary and advice-filled e-mails from bosses get stored, too. There are love letters and breakup messages and reconciliation notes. My digital paper trail chronicles the day I started my first job (I tweeted, received "good luck!" e-mails and sent a photo of my new ID card), even the time I got swine flu -- with pictures.

IMG00026.jpgIn true schoolgirl sentimentality, I reread e-mails that remind me of important eras of my life and how they began, like the invitation to the party I forwarded to my now-boyfriend which became our first date; the time I e-mailed my parents a picture of us, announcing our relationship for the first time. There are myriad e-mails since, from a date to watch Lost and order sushi to instances where I corrected his spelling to romantic outings he outlined via e-mail, like a roadtrip up Highway 1 and a backpacking trip on the California coast. Most reread is an e-mail he spontaneously sent me while I was far away in Europe and asleep -- for which I used to painstakingly comb through e-mails, searching, but which is now starred -- ending with the line, "You're everything that I always knew you were." Our messages are like the minutes of our relationship, along with our Gchat history before he took it (perhaps wisely) off the record -- an interesting feature Google offers, for people wary of storing the records I sometimes cherish. (I went through these logs to determine the date of our anniversary.)

Because digitally seems the safest way to store memories these days, I keep Blackberry memos of, among other things, notes people send, sentimental and otherwise. And because these are on my phone's very fallible hard drive, I also e-mail them to the cloud. There are lists of my favorite places in various cities; stories people told me that I want to hold on to; and a picture of a beergarden my boyfriend sent me recently, captioned "where we met."

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Jen Wieczner is a journalist based in New York City. She has written for the Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, SmartMoney, Fast Company, New York and other publications. Find her at jenwieczner.com and on Twitter @jenwieczner.

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