The Infinite Weirdness of Never-Ending Chat Histories

A Facebook bug resurfaced old chats for users around the world, and things got awkward.

On Monday, a slew of Facebook users logged on to the platform and were bombarded with old chat messages, some from nearly a decade ago, all popping up as new through Facebook Messenger. It was a bug, and it disappeared quickly. “Earlier today, some people may have experienced Facebook resending older messages. The issue, caused by software updates, has been fully resolved. We’re sorry for any inconvenience,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.

But it was still rattling. “Thank you @facebook for sending me notifications of messages sent over a year old,” one man tweeted. “Many were from the day my partner, Dean, passed away & now I’ve spent my evening in fear of what else I’m going to see.” April Roberts, a public-relations specialist in New York, logged on to her Facebook account Monday and was immediately confronted with a stream of old messages from as far back as 2015. Thinking they were new, she replied to a couple, including one from an ex. “Some were from people I had deliberately not spoken to in a few years,” she says. “It just created a lot of anxiety initially.” Shortly after sending her second reply, she realized what had happened.

Even if you weren’t afflicted by the bug, the awkward experience of unintentionally happening upon years-old message histories is universal. While phone calls and in-person conversations start and end, most online chat systems adhere to a rigid standard format: the single, never-ending chat thread. Between Facebook Messenger, Twitter Direct Messages, iMessage, Gchat, and more, everyone’s internet experience is littered with these unspooling, everlasting chat histories, abandoned and picked up again and almost never wiped.

They can confront you anywhere. Typing the name of a business contact into my Gmail search bar resurrected an uncomfortable Gchat thread of my last conversation with a college friend in 2009. DMing someone I thought I had just met on Twitter revealed that we had actually communicated previously over several messages in 2012. A few accidental clicks on Facebook, and you can mistakenly reopen a conversation with someone you long since lost touch with.

Sometimes these eternal chat histories can be good. They act as a long-running ledger of a relationship, documenting its evolution and memorable moments. When my parents moved recently, I unearthed an old binder where, for all three years of middle school, I had meticulously printed out and saved all my chat histories with boys I liked. Poring over them was a fun way to relive my childhood and reminisce about people I felt a fondness for. Andrew Swiatowicz, a dentist in Delaware, treasures his chat thread with his now husband so dearly that when he accidentally deleted his entire text history recently, he bought software to recover it. “It felt like I lost a piece of me,” he says.

But these threads are just as often unnerving. Chat provides an immediate portal into your past in a way that a photo doesn’t. When you look at an old picture, you’re never remembering things the way they really were—you’re projecting your own memory of that event or day. Revisiting the same period through an old chat history is different. Chat records offer concrete evidence of the way things really felt in that moment: the embarrassing slang you used, the plans you made, the idle thoughts you shared with friends. A chat history forces you to confront a version of who you are that you probably forgot about. Part of what made Facebook users affected by the bug so uncomfortable was seeing an old version of themselves pop up without warning.

“A chat history shows people’s real personality,” a colleague of mine says. “It shows their vocabulary, their habits, the way they type, capital letters, slang, emoji.” And for all those reasons, it feels more intimate. The never-ending scroll means painful conversations remain there forever, and when those conversations do arise, moving past them can be hard. After my colleague posted about a family member’s suicide in her long-running group chat, the conversation petered out. When she hopped back into the thread several months later, she was immediately confronted with her last messages. It felt like a gut punch. “I had to reread those exchanges, and it was hard,” she says. “I forgot that I even reached out to them. I forgot what I said and reading it all reminded me of how it felt to say that to them. It was painful.”

On chat threads, there’s no representation of time. New messages all appear evenly spaced, whether sent five minutes or five years ago. A friend of mine shared a screenshot of an exchange with an ex-boyfriend on Facebook Messenger: His cheery attempt at reconnection in 2018 hovered just millimeters below the previous message, when she’d called him a misogynistic pig 10 years earlier.

Because our chat histories force us to position every new conversation in context with the one before it, sometimes it’s easier to cut off communication forever than grapple with your last message. “Sometimes I go to message someone, but the last time we messaged was 2016 and I feel so bad I don’t do it, even though I badly want to talk to them,” says Matt Enloe, a lawyer in Chicago.

“I switch chat platforms to avoid ever getting back to that context,” says Anushk Mittal, a developer and student in Georgia. Mittal says that if he has a bad interaction or ghosted someone on Instagram DM, for instance, he’ll often just add them on a different platform to start fresh instead of reopening the old wound. Facebook, for its part, appears to have realized how awkward these eternal histories can be. Now, when you click to message someone via their profile, a new chat window, devoid of history, appears. When that person responds, however, you’re forced back into the thread.

As platforms proliferate and our communication becomes more splintered, however, the never-ending chat history’s days may be numbered. Over the past couple of years, several apps have made an effort to incorporate more ephemeral messaging into their systems. Chat apps such as Signal and Telegram now allow messages to self-destruct after a certain time. On Snapchat, chat messages disappear almost immediately by default. On Slack, they disappear over time unless you pay. WhatsApp recently announced a plan to auto-delete all users’ chat histories that aren’t backed up on Google Drive. Facebook itself has yet to jump on the bandwagon. The platform does allow chats to expire in “secret conversations,” but doesn’t offer a way to mass-delete or privatize the years’ worth of chats sent via the default version, the type users were confronted with as a result of the bug.

In the days since the Facebook bug, some users said they were being more proactive about deleting their old threads. “Should we wipe this group history?” one friend wondered in a group chat I’m on. As Juris Kaca, a journalist in Latvia who was also affected by the Facebook bug, told me, being confronted with old threads was “yet another weird way that your past can come back to haunt you.”