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My first year of college, between semesters, at the long relieved end of the year, I went to visit a friend who was studying at Oxford. It was a warmer damper greener winter there, after an unforgiving December in New York, and all the buildings were small and quiet. I’d just barely lived in New York long enough to notice the quiet elsewhere. Everything in this small British town was blanketed in a quiet wet green, old stone and moss. We went down to the computer lab, walking through the hush of a nearly cleared-out campus, the sparkle and softening at the end of the year. We gathered around a hulking desktop computer and my friend showed me how to make a Facebook. I’d heard whispers about this new thing, and ignored them. Rumors stayed rumors longer then. It took more time to figure out what was real and what was changing, to shift from one expectation to the next. The world felt at the time less permeable, more resistant, more fixed and yet less known. But maybe I was just very young, and very little had happened to me yet. I barely even had a picture of myself to put up on the page I made. We had not yet started hoarding the evidence of our own faces.
We closed it up after an hour or so and went and did something else. I remember very little of the rest of that visit, maybe because I am getting old enough that there is too much data for memory to process and some has to be discarded, single scenes elided into a mass of narrative summary, a feeling, a bus ride, a reunion, the next thing that happened to me months later. Or maybe I remember little of it because I have since then replaced my memory with a separate and distinct archive. An old friend once called me their external hard-drive, which at the time I took as a compliment. But now it makes me think about the ways in which certain people are often asked to take up certain outsize burdens in relationships. One of these burdens is the storing of memory. It’s the cataloguing of everything from scheduled social events and doctor’s appointments and when the recycling goes out, to the anniversaries and turning points and inside jokes that make up the fabric of loving someone. Building something with another person depends on memory. Romance is mainly a repetitive act of remembering, a shared language of reference inflated and made important because someone else remembers it along with you. Shared memory is the basic unit of not being alone.
I think it will be weird for history, looking back, that a few people massively harnessed loneliness and sold it back to the lonely and all of us somehow believed, even briefly, that this could be a social good. One piece of loneliness is the desire to be remembered, to be recognized, for your face to be hailed as familiar and welcome. Being lonely is being perpetually unknown and unseen, unrecognized. That shared memory that makes us not alone is what all social media, but Facebook in particular, was selling from the beginning. I once loved someone who was deep in the grip of alcoholism, and his frequent blackouts meant our relationship could not sustain any shared archive. Moments happened again and again, or happened and then disappeared off the record; being the sole bearer of memories that simply did not exist to the other person quickly made me feel like there was no solid reality of which I could grab ahold. It felt like playing house with an imaginary friend. The fight we had when we broke up was the worst fight I’ve ever had with another person. Then again, I’m the only one who remembers it, so it might not have happened at all.
When I deleted my Facebook in 2015, I didn’t download my archive. I’m not sure that that feature even existed then, and if it did I was in too much of a hurry to rip off the band-aid to think about preservation, about what might be lost, what I might want to look back on later. In a version of the world where most of us depend on these external hard drives to tell us that we have had a past, to maintain an ongoing romance with ourselves, it sometimes feel as though I have rendered myself fictional.
And yet it has become impossible to be fictional, to slip between lines of text and photos of other people’s old loves and disappear. One reason romance is situated with memory is that memory renders one permanent. I am more than what happened to me today, more than how my face looks this morning. I am a long equation, a house habited with the marks of living. But permanence is also a tether. Despite deleting my account, somewhere Facebook’s machines are still churning all my data around in its monstrous, unsleeping stomach, the vat of acid where all our numbers, all our dates and times, our loves and wants, reference and loyalty, have gone. In love we ask that we play external hard drive to one another, but greater external hard drives exist of all of us now. Everyone is stuck in the same grand, sinking-ship romance with their own aging face, repeated endlessly across small screens.
Today’s internet wants us to believe that we don’t lose things so much as find other things. It’s just like falling in love, and out again, and back in: No one is ever actually gone until they’re replaced. If death is finite, a dead end and an empty room, then love is generative, constantly replacing the spaces where loss would go with the next shiny things, and the internet has always been about love rather than death. Choosing love out of these two options sounds optimistic, but is in fact perhaps its most sinister quality. Too much memory, just like too much romance, feels like a hoarder’s house; the obligation to an unforgotten self is stifling, refusing movement and fresh air. Remembering is an addictive and psychotic activity, much like romance, walking a circle in a single small space until the floor beneath us wears through.
Sometimes I’m still astounded by how utterly reality has transformed since I made that page in that computer lab on a warm December night, how profoundly the world in which I was a child is not the one in which I now live. Very little makes me feel as old as the fact that I have these memories of social media when it was new. One thing that deleting an archive does is to imitate youth, releasing one back into a self that is potential rather than decided. Accumulation is the process of aging. When I was first on the internet, it was was for kids. My generation created the joke, now not only cliched but obsolete, about parents trying to go online, how bad they were at it, how funny it was to juxtapose a grown-up and the internet. We still make these jokes now, because it is very hard to unlearn a language that one has built oneself, but they’re an embarrassing tell - we are, many of us, the age our parents were when we first went online, or close to it. We are the dads online, and online is for dads now. This is what happens when you grow up, this what happens in the coming of age story after the coming of age. When we are young, we think we’ve invented the world. But what is new eventually becomes what is expected, and then what is old. The internet and I were young at the same time and when you’re very young you don’t consider that things you lose might be things you’ll regret, that the world’s forward movement is not necessarily benevolent, that it might be worth holding on to something that resists being held, that what is newer may not be better. It is easy to assume we might never prefer to forget anything, easy to forget the cost of living in perpetual romance.
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