by Laur M. Jackson
My personal brand of drunk texting is not the fun, flirtatious, or literacy-adjacent kind. More the scathing, revelatory, mean kind. I very very very very rarely (actually, only once) delete these messages post-incident.
The short answer: so far it’s the closest I’ve found to maintaining some modicum of editorial control over my own archive. The long answer is as follows.
My favorite thing about iMessage is its insistence that it’s a living medium. Its selling point over other apparently antiquary message forms relies on mastery over communicative temporality. “Unlimited texting. Unlimited fun” the Apple.com headline promises, baldly appropriating an eternality that imagines immediacy as the solution of all of life’s problems. iMessage’s marketed features — group messaging, read receipts, typing notification (aka the ellipses of suspense) — pit us against oh-so-sticky compulsive sociality. iMessage is not the carrot dangled by Apple, but the blinders lovingly fitted for a vision of human interaction left wanting for an inability to be “real time” communicators. The carrot then is the prospect that we can be allied with our own obligatory social impetuses — that we can make friends with FOMO.
The logic is reflexive. Communicativity as time equals fun. Satisfaction and happiness thus relies not only on constant accessibility to others’ conversation, but the actual maximum fulfillment of the technological capabilities. It’s all free,* so the difference between sending 10 messages or 2 shouldn’t matter; thus, the goal becomes infinity messages, which deflates the unhappy futurity of FOMO by redirecting its apprehensions to the present. Nonresponse is that much more devastating.
In iMessage time, to “miss a beat” — or to fail to keep another individual abreast of what-now — is social self-destruction. And in iMessage, what could signify death better than that abrupt sight of green? A device turned off, out of power, or ineligible — illegible — for the language of iMessage hypermediated immediacy.
It seems significant that despite the many features multiplied across several schools of messaging applications (GroupMe, WhatsApp, Messenger, etc.), “undo”/“unsend” is still absent, so consistently that questions about it assume a kind of absurdity. The frustration and desire for an “undo” capability is produced by an infrastructure that such a feature would undermine. In the words of Chris Rock, “That’s like Cadillac making a car that lasts for fifty years… and you know they can do it!” Indeed, “we have the technology,” but if the identity of these applications hinges upon (the fiction of) immediacy as sociality… “undo” is damn near sacrilegious. A threat to the Archive as monolith, uniplanar, progressive, omniscient, organized, and a Power unto itself. So as users we move to the next best option: deletion.
Because as familiar as we are with its incapabilities and failures at true (whatever that might mean) erasure (for better: hello, recovered Word doc!; and worse: hello, decade-old nudes!), deleting messages in its own way still feels curiously close to an undo: the pleasure in pressing the “Delete Message(s)” command followed by elation as the offending passage slides away into almost-never-have-existed. And better yet, the feeling as a renewed conversation — assuming, ha, that you are still in contact with the person — quite literally slots in where the old messages would have been, retroactively stitched to earlier presumably inoffensive messages to together compose a glorious stream of un-hysterical correspondence. Deletion rubs regret out. (That then makes the flipside, er, something like edge play?)
Somewhat akin to what Spotify product technologist (what) Matthew Ogle observes but does not interrogate in his love letter to the “real-time web”-as-self-archiving-architecture, holding onto my textual blunders is partially about injecting knowability into a situation that is neither contained nor yet available for analysis. If History knowingly operates in the “syntax of the fairytale,” according to Carolyn Steedman, the desire to keep versus delete these digital eyeball daggers speaks in the illusory syntax of the factual: a claim to the nitty, gritty realness of what happened, what was/is felt, who said whatever, and what went wrong.
That is undoubtedly one malady (of, like, so many) contracted from the digital archive, the chronicness of (i)Message time synchronicity. The belief that such a supposedly lively archive as a matter of form in turn produces a definitive knowing about our own social engagements. That unlimited* possibility means constant availability. That having the same message available on a plethora of devices enhances our ability to know anything about it. That seeing that someone is typing for a fact means anything (especially when it leads to literally nothing, maybe forever). “Read 1:21 AM” and “Thx.” are each as good an indicator as the other that he won’t ever text you again.
Does a message carried through gen after gen of phone upgrades makes us any smarter about connecting to other people? “[A]ctively engag[ing] with the archiving archive,” as Joanne Garde-Hansen describes, “whose technical structure” is integral to how memory is allowed to take form, is an activity, much like deletion, invested in obscuring the confines of how we communicate, in conflating features with feeling. Who needs an undo when texting as practice already prioritizes the advent message, the message yet to come, over whatever might’ve already been said?
And yet my messages, in their own way, rebel against (i)Message time. It is my way to stay in the dust leftover. Inhale it. Choke on it. Cry from it. Carry it with me without the release of erasure nor the pleasure of truly (whatever that might mean!) moving on.
It’s not about nostalgia. That might better explain any covetousness around messages received; the midday “Hey,” late night flirtations, and cheeky photographs. I keep those messages, too (I’m weak, sue me).
It’s not to prolong anger or spur vengeance. These messages won’t sprout abs or a great sex life or a healthy attitude. I am almost absolutely sure that the nuclear option and mass deletion is far more conducive to health than to remain in possession of and by these spectres.
Even if the medium allows for the semblance of a never-having-been that edits the way to smooth sociality, communication and interaction and romance are already such well-working mechanisms for the production of regret that deletion is at best a postponement of the broken, messy, and painful contingencies of human relationships. It is only through negative, yet wholly unproductive feeling — shame, embarrassment — it seems, that the message archive reveals the ugliness of its failure to deliver on the promise of good feelings as it holds us together in its version of the now.
So I save my messages. If only to save myself from the dream of a medium that can mask my messiness as I search for someone who can embrace the totality of my archive.
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.