Whoops, I Deleted My Life

A sense of panic set in when I realized I’d erased the entirety of my inbox.

Illustration of an envelope disappearing.
Erik Carter / The Atlantic

When the ominous warnings started hitting my inbox a few months ago, I tried to ignore them. The emails contained none of the humor or playfulness of the early Gmail ethos. Instead, they were terse and vaguely threatening, seeming to channel the depressing spirit of financial collapse and austerity present everywhere around us. The subject line: “Your Gmail is almost out of storage.” The body, in essence: This is a shakedown—pay us a subscription fee in perpetuity, and we will continue granting you what we once promised would be free access to your own life and memories.

The message wouldn’t have triggered such resistance had I not been receiving it from every other quarter of my digital life simultaneously—if Apple hadn’t already ransacked my pockets for subscription fees to maintain my ever-expanding photo archive, and to insure and finance “care” for my ever more expensive assortment of its products; if Microsoft hadn’t insisted that I subscribe to its word-processing software; if so many talented, enterprising friends and acquaintances didn’t now depend on Substack and Patreon donations; if I didn’t have to rent my music library from Spotify instead of owning my own records; if I didn’t have to fork over Prime fees to Amazon for my packages and to watch professional tennis; if I hadn’t been obliged to maintain Netflix, Canal+, and AppleTV accounts so that my children would sit quietly on airplanes; if Elon Musk hadn’t promised to render my tweets invisible if I didn’t pay him in monthly $8 installments. By the time those damn Gmail requests became unignorable, I had long since reached the point of peak micropayments. I was drowning in subscriptions.

So I became determined to delete thousands of deadweight messages. It seemed a straightforward task. One morning, I made coffee, put on a podcast, and started emptying my drafts folder in Gmail, then the Promotions tab, then the Social tab. Processing so many messages takes time. Once I reached my inbox, I kept clicking and clicking, searching for entire categories of email that I could move in bulk to the trash folder. Then the phone rang, and my concentration shifted. I don’t know what happened exactly, but when I hung up, I saw that I’d freed up more than 13 of my 15 available gigabytes of storage. A sense of panic set in as I realized I’d erased the entirety of my inbox.

Three months after graduating from college, I moved from my parents’ home in New Jersey to the rainy postindustrial city of Lille, 30 minutes from the Belgian border. That was September 2003, and I now struggle to access the mental and emotional terrain of that seemingly recent but qualitatively alien technological era. At the time, I owned a Motorola Razr and a Compaq laptop. Although I’d enjoyed and profited from—primarily in the form of free music downloads—the convenience of a high-speed Ethernet connection as a student, it didn’t even occur to me to set up Wi-Fi in my minuscule studio. Once or twice a week, I visited the cybercafe around the corner to read and respond to emails.

I’d decided to move to France to be closer to a girl, but she had broken up with me over the summer—and, for better and worse, I was about to learn what being lonely really meant. I spent those early months either in that tiny studio, brewing stovetop coffee and playing the MP3s I’d downloaded, or whittling away the entirety of my ridiculously modest salary in cafés, feeling warm inside while watching the rain streak down the windows. Those were what Junot Díaz called “the discovery years,” and I roamed the city high on life and consumed by daydreams. In the midst of tremendous boredom, I felt the bursts of epiphany that I realize now are the true wealth of the young and inexperienced. And I wrote down everything I was thinking and feeling, in long and detailed emails addressed to my best friend from college, who had moved to Russia, and to my mother—and they, in turn, sent me wonderfully detailed responses.

Many of these exchanges achieved the sentimental weight of paper letters and contained a concentration of inspired observation and raw yearning that I have seldom felt able to equal even in published writing. Yet they were housed precariously on Yahoo and Hotmail servers. By the time I moved to Manhattan the following year to buy myself some time as I figured out what to do next, Gmail was the hot ticket. Soon enough, all of that tortured, ecstatic testimony and empathetic witness ended up in the same digital cemetery that hosts decayed Napster files and whole iPhoto archives no longer compatible with upgraded operating systems. I mourned their loss, but I was young or ignorant enough to believe that my most important memories and conversations would always be ahead of me. In any event, I wasn’t thinking about loss in 2004, when my colleague Daria blessed me with a coveted Gmail invite. “How does it feel to be a G now?” she wrote.

From that moment on, Gmail became my central means of communication. It felt like an act of extraordinary altruism—a much-improved user experience, ostensibly with storage limits but ones that, like the horizon, miraculously retreated as you approached them. I continued to write and receive long digital letters, but the pace of exchange was quickening. The messages grew shorter, more dashed off, and far more numerous. Gmail itself was a destination, and the chat function stayed open on my desktop throughout the workday. My friends and I started our first chains, some of which stretch into the present. Soon, we also adopted the habit of tapping out text messages on cellphones and writing on one another’s walls on Myspace and Facebook.

By 2007, when the iPhone dropped, the internet and constant connectivity had rendered my previous relationship with technology and pace of correspondence almost unrecognizable. Email was no longer my only or even primary means of keeping in touch with loved ones and confidants, and lengthy declarations grew more sporadic. But I still composed, with great thought and care, heartfelt paragraphs about serious disputes or misunderstandings or romantic ruminations. My Gmail inbox contained the majority of my most sincere reflections and declarations.

When I started writing for a living rather than for amusement, my Gmail account (along with the Notes app) also displaced the paper notebooks I used to fill with snippets of insight and self-directed messages and prompts for the future. I would save manuscripts and works in progress by forwarding myself the Word documents. My Gmail inbox became an archive of not just my personal travails but also my professional efforts and gradual achievements. Every single romantic relationship I lived through as an adult began and ended—and was narrated and dissected—in maddening threads of Gmail correspondence. The jubilant record of my courtship and marriage; the heartbreaking arguments and hard-won reconciliations; the polyphonic story of my bachelor party and those of my groomsmen; the joy of my children’s birth, with photos appended—it all crowded up with records of travel, receipts, spam, meaningless banter, many thousands of redundant messages notifying me of Twitter and Facebook notifications. This was my inbox: as unique as a snowflake, some two decades in the making and amounting to 90,000 messages—and it is gone now.

That morning, my mind spun as I tried in vain to re-create the various perceptions and emotions that had been written into Google’s servers and were now abandoned to the ether. I felt a sudden sense of mourning that I still have not gotten over. And yet, to my surprise, I felt something else alongside it: a conflicting sense of relief and even levity. I would never have voluntarily deleted all of those emails, but I also can’t deny, not entirely, that there is something cathartic about sloughing off those thousands of accumulated disappointments and rebukes, those passionate and pathetic fights and dramas, even those insights and stirrings—all of those complicated yet ephemeral layers of former selves that no longer contain me. I began to accept that I would need to imagine my way back into those previous mental states if they were truly worth revisiting—and that if I could not, then the loss was necessarily manageable. I closed my laptop, wandered outside into the specific corner of France that my former selves’ cumulative choices had led me to inhabit, and was overtaken by a sense of hope.