Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Textual ephemera

Today I deleted all the text messages in my phone: well over a thousand, sent and received, dating back to late February of last year. I'm under the impression that storing too many messages runs down the battery or is otherwise bad for my phone, so I try to remember to purge them every few months. In practice, I usually think to do it only when there's a motive, such as erasing all evidence of an ill-advised fling (not that Flavia would know anything about that).

This time there was no motive other than the turn of the new year and the ridiculous number of messages I'd accumulated, and I had mixed feelings about deleting them. Even obsessive archivists have their limits, and I had no real desire to preserve these messages permanently--but I still spent the better part of an hour clicking through the first few months' worth and trying to reconstruct their context. Ephemeral or not, they're still records of a life.

I was slow to catch on to text messaging initially, and while the 130-odd messages I sent and received over the course of MLA still pale in comparison to the volume produced by Those Kids Today, this year's conference may mark my full embrace of the medium. It's not only the most efficient way to communicate, in many circumstances, but its constraints have given me a form and an idiom that I actively enjoy. Let's say something awful or amazing has just happened, and I need to convey it to a friend--can I do it in five minutes in the ladies room? In three sentences or fewer? With some approximation of the right tone? Well! I'm gonna try!

Maybe it's that I like the challenge--or maybe it's just that I really like to talk--but each form of communication seems to have not only its own utility, but also its own distinct pleasures. Instant-messaging is another medium I didn't get initially, but now love: Victoria and I both type and think so rapidly that our IM conversations careen forward and back, with comic delays and resumptions; it's a bit like being on a transatlantic trunk call in the 1930s--except that these conversations are different, and in several ways better, than those we have over the telephone. IMing allows for split-second word and phrase changes, for scrolling back for the details we missed the first time, and for more substantive commentary when the other is telling a long story (on the phone, the listening partner might say no more than "uh-huh" and "yeah" for ten minutes straight--but on the computer, that's dull as fuck); I think there's more give-and-take and more conversational creativity built into the medium.

So although I'm not convinced that the phenomenon of the cell phone novel is real--the novel isn't meant for the cell phone or the cell phone for the novel--I'm open to the possibility that another sort of narrative (not necessarily the kind sent from the ladies room) is appropriate for cell-phone transmission.

Whatever it is, though, I'll be a late adopter. Which is fine--I don't need any more text to worry about archiving, cataloguing, or deleting.


G-Fav said...

I'm under the impression that storing too many messages runs down the battery or is otherwise bad for my phone, so I try to remember to purge them every few months.

As one of your resident engineers, I just wanted to reassure you that data in your cellphone shouldn't drain its battery life. If it does, tell me the company and we'll send out assassins for their engineers.


G-Fav said...

Woah - sorry to post again but I just wanted to say that I really liked what I saw when I clicked "they're still records of a life."


Flavia said...

G-Fav #1: Damn. Guess I didn't have to delete them after all. Though what I'd have done with them isn't clear.

G-Fav #2: I know! I love it. Her other projects are pretty cool, too (accessible via the main page of her website).

Doctor Cleveland said...

That thing is a nice epitome of internet art projects: brilliant, entirely new, and just-so-slightly uncomfortable.

outside voice said...

Sounds very freeing! I'm now going to try to delete the accumulated emails that I have been holding onto for work years. (That tendency toward text preservation that comes along with the job is sometimes overwhelming.) Thanks for the inspiration.

Renaissance Girl said...

130 texts over MLA? What the hell were you guys plotting, some sort of Guy Fawkesian climax to the thing?

I just started to send texts a month or so ago. My traffic is very light.