I Give Up Learning to Delete the Old Versions of My Digital Self
For a long time, I believed you had to keep these records. I knew so little about who I was and what I wanted.
This is I Give Up , a new series from Catapult magazine on the things—habits, expectations, jobs, ambitions, futures, and more—that people have let go of in the past few years.
When I was growing up in Virginia, my family went to Washington, DC, a lot. My favorite museum as a kid wasn’t any of the fun ones. Not the National Air and Space Museum or the dinosaur-infested Natural History Museum. No, my favorite was the National Archives Museum, only made briefly cool to other people by being the place where Nicolas Cage stole the Declaration of Independence after declaring his intention to steal the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure . But really, the National Archives is just a place full of records. Endless documents. A sprawling filing cabinet.
Most people go to the National Archives Museum to look at the big ones, those hallowed founding documents whose swooping lettering and frayed edges soften and obscure the violence this country was built upon. But in the stacks and vaults of the National Archives live more personal records too: telegrams, photographs, letters, immigration records, drafted legislation. Snippets of lives that told a story.
I’ve always been drawn to the art of archival work. As a child, I believed unquestioningly the stories spelled out by the National Archives. I was loudly political but not yet radical, buying into the story of democracy supposedly told in the vaults. Archives, I assumed, were necessarily an objective documentation of what had happened. I didn’t yet know what it meant to curate, to recontextualize.
In middle school, I told my parents I wanted to make a family tree. I had (and still have) four living grandparents. I met with each of them to listen to their stories of family members long gone, in rural Northern Michigan, in Norway, in India. My father’s parents could go back so far, more generations than I had anticipated. As I sat on their floor, my grandfather told me what each name meant, what each nickname meant too. But when it came to birthdates, things got complicated. Only my father’s youngest brother was born in a hospital. For a while, my father had two birth years (that somehow were not even consecutive?!). Several people had multiple birthdates, the official ones and the ones on their records which were not, in fact, official. I got so hung up on the dates. I thought it was important for the family tree to be as accurate as possible. Me, a person who grew up mispronouncing my own last name because my mother made up an Americanized pronunciation when she married my father. Then, in the early 2000s, I lost that family tree to a defunct website or email address. And all I wish I still had from it isn’t anyone’s birthdates. It’s those meanings of every name and every nickname.
My obsession with records, with documentation, with preservation, became a self-obsession.
Middle school was also when I started putting more parts of myself online. My obsession with records, with documentation, with preservation, became a self-obsession. I knew I wanted to write, and I asked my parents for journals and notebooks, big pretentious leather-bound things I’d scrawl in for a few months before eventually abandoning. A real journal, even one with a lock, felt too accessible to the other members of my home. If I wrote online, it was a win-win: Other people could read it, which meant I had access to them and them to me. But it also felt better guarded from the people in my real life. (My parents still don’t know what Xanga was and how much time I spent in its screen glow.) I began to build a self-archive online.
Welcome to my archive, where you’ll find emails between me and old professors. Early drafts of terrible teenage short stories about older men in relationships with young women. Grocery lists typed into the Notes app. Texts with people I’m not even friends with anymore. Gchat transcripts. All my tweets from 2009 about the television show Glee . A truly absurd amount of Alison Brie photos, posted on my Tumblr during a time I identified as straight. Digital breadcrumbs of my queerness that are so easy to follow in hindsight but were intended at the time to perform the opposite. I turned heterosexuality into a campy performance, lusting after hunky men like Robert Downey Jr. and Jon Hamm while also emulating their style, imagining myself talking to women the ways their characters did. All those short stories about straight age-gap relationships. It’s all there in the tweets, the blog posts, the tags on those blog posts, the Facebook statuses, the Facebook Notes (remember those?), the email chains, the transcripts, the photos and their captions—this obsessive need to be liked, to fit in, to present a version of myself to people on the internet that seemed cool, desirable, and uncomplicated.
I recently joked to a coworker that there are two types of queers: those who obsessively self-archive and those who burn it all down. On one end of the spectrum, there’s someone like me, someone who keeps everything on file, though not necessarily in an organized way. On the other end, there are people like my friend who is forever at inbox zero, who has her tweets set to autodelete after a fixed period of time, who deletes photos of her exes from Instagram in the wake of a breakup. “What if you want to go back and look at something from before?” I ask her, and she shrugs. “If it’s important, I’ll remember it.” She’s always looking forward, which is hard for me. I’m always looking back. I’m doing it now.
On my Instagram grid, you’ll find photo after photo of the person who broke my heart so badly that my mother still makes a face when she says her name. If you scroll back far enough, you’ll find photos of my college boyfriend from when I was desperately trying to convince myself that having a college boyfriend was something I could like. There are so many friends I don’t talk to anymore, our intimacies preserved on the grid even if the relationships have very much evaporated.
I recently joked that there are two types of queers: those who obsessively self-archive and those who burn it all down.
For a long time, I believed you had to keep these records. I knew so little about who I was, what I wanted, and I thought maybe, hidden in the archive of who I once was, there might be clues.
Before I came to terms with my queerness, I was in a constant state of reinvention. Even after I came out, I spent the first several years trying on different personalities as if they were costumes. I knew I was gay, but what kind of gay was I? Did I like femmes? Butches? How did people see me, and why was I hinging so much of my queer identity not on myself or how I felt but on my relationship to others? I experimented with my presentation in the ways I dressed, briefly veering masculine of center not necessarily because it was what I wanted but because I thought it’s what others expected—or maybe I did want it—did I want it?—let’s check the archive. The answers it gave me were unhelpful: I stole ties from my father’s closet and had to cut them because they were too long. At the same time, I thrifted retro dresses and did photo shoots for Tumblr styled to look like Mad Men , all dressed up in Betty Draper drag. I dressed like Kenickie from Grease for a costume party, donning a white tee and leather jacket, pinning back my long hair into something pompadour-adjacent. I cross-posted pics on Twitter and Instagram, wishing the whole time I was instead dressed in tight leather and a blonde wig, emulating Sandy from the movie’s end, an option I’d ruled out because I thought it wasn’t “gay enough.”
I spent hours on these themed photo shoots. I spent more hours on the About Me posts I periodically put on Tumblr. Once every few weeks, especially if I’d recently gathered a lot of new followers, I’d post a photo of myself, taken in Photo Booth on my MacBook, often with the black-and-white or sepia filter, and a block of bulleted text containing the things I thought were most important for people to know about me.
Image courtesy of the author
Late at night, I fiddled and flicked at these posts, barely noticing my overheating laptop was burning my legs. I wanted to get it right . It felt so urgent, this little block of text and a blurry selfie.
I thought self-archiving could lead to self-actualization. I filled as many spaces as I could with information, whether it was on my blog, in Facebook albums, on Twitter, or on any of the many social media platforms I’ve used through the years. It was like collecting data on myself. But I also had an overall fear of letting go, of impermanence. I was so scared of forgetting pieces of myself—even pieces I longed to discard, like bad relationships and bad friendships and, I guess, other people in general. They discarded me more easily than I discarded them.
The digital hoarding got a lot worse after my ex, the one who’s still on the Instagram grid, betrayed my trust in a seismic way. She had a tendency to say she never said things she absolutely said. This included denying she said certain things in couples’ therapy while we were in couples’ therapy. My archival work took on a new urgency when I saw it as a means for control over my own life. I needed proof of my own memories. It was no longer just about preserving past versions of myself but about mental insurance. I didn’t trust anyone—myself included—to present an accurate record.
But what’s a truly accurate record, anyway? Do my emails and texts really tell the full story of my life, or are they, like the records stored in the National Archives, carefully curated and biased?
It is, of course, ironic that I’m writing an essay about this. What is the personal essay if not a curated archive of the self? So often, I’ll look back on something I wrote and think, Well, I don’t feel that way anymore at all. A few years ago, I revisited an old essay I’d written about my future plans in the magazine section of my college’s daily newspaper. Rereading it made me cringe. In the piece, I was adamant that I did not want to ever marry or have kids. What I really meant was that I never wanted to marry a man, have kids with a man, and live a prepackaged heteronormative life. But I didn’t have the language or self-knowledge to reach that conclusion yet, so instead I wrote something clickable and vapid about being an enlightened feminist who didn’t need a man.
It’d be overly simplistic to say that the pandemic changed everything, but the pandemic absolutely changed everything. I started gradually deleting things, letting them disappear. In isolation, I was digitally communicating more than ever. But I was also realizing that everything can change at any time, and in that light, holding on to my past selves made less sense, like keeping clothes that no longer fit. I set my texts to autodelete after a fixed amount of time. I deleted old voicemails. I batch deleted emails, some of which were more than a decade old, and got to inbox zero for the first time in my life.
Aside from the practical benefit of freeing up literal storage space, I also felt an internal shift. Easing up on my self-archiving felt like building new trust with myself, giving myself permission to change and grow. I used to believe saving everything was the only way to find out what I really wanted, who I wanted to be. But when I delete things, I just make space for something new.
It wasn’t just the pandemic that led to this digital purge. (Okay, fine, purge isn’t totally accurate—I held on to some things. I can’t change overnight!) It helps, too, that I’m in a relationship with someone who doesn’t make me question my own experiences. My girlfriend is a librarian, so she knows all about archives. But she has also shown me there’s relief in letting go. She’s at that other end of the spectrum, a burn-it-all-down gay.
We’re both writers, and our drafting processes reflect our different tendencies. I am—or, I was—the type of writer who keeps every draft, who keeps adding “version 1,” “version 2,” “version 3,” “version 18” to the end of a file name and burying everything in a folder. She works in one document, always. There are no recorded previous drafts. She believes that if you take something out and then want to put it back in, it’ll come back to you. And if it doesn’t, it wasn’t meant to be. It’s about trusting yourself—something I’m trying to be better at.
I’m working on embracing ephemera. I don’t need documentation of every experience and every relationship and every conversation. And if my memories shift, I should let them. No archive is a perfect form of preservation. No matter how literally organized they are, they’re messy, incomplete. I’m learning to be more comfortable with mess, with change, and with deleting the old copies of who I used to be.