Exhibit A: Moist towelette, still pristine in its package
“Wash Away Your Sins,” the towelette reads. “Right your wrongs…with a wipe!” I bought the towelette at one of those stores that sells novelty items (sealing wax, ironic breath mints). I was seventeen, and the towelette was a present for an ex-boyfriend: Alex. At seventeen, we were into sin. We’d recently read Paradise Lost and copied key passages into our notebooks. I listened to Marilyn Manson and wore a bra strap choker. In the golden days of our relationship, Alex taught me how to cut the crotch out of fishnet stockings so I could—like him—wear the fabric on my arms.
I bought the snarky towelette to win Alex back, but I never gave it to him. Thirteen years later, it lives in a box called “Nostalgia 1,” still moist and unused after all this time. There’s something almost aggressively physical about it—the slick plastic, the machine-crimped edges, as solid and unchanged as my own fingerprints. I’ve left many fingerprints on this object in the past decade, as I’ve taken it out and pondered it like a talisman.
This towelette is a nostalgia within a nostalgia: a throwback to the era when memory’s hauntings were more confined to physical artifacts. I ran into Alex at the Apple Store recently and we spoke awkwardly while I clutched my laptop charger. Afterward, I didn’t beeline for my nostalgia boxes, but instead, looked at pictures of Alex and his fiancé on Facebook. The come-down was safe and immaterial. There was ease of access, then comfort: we had both turned out fine. I didn’t feel the need to wipe away anything.
Is the internet changing the way we remember love?
“The Internet has become the external hard drive for our memories,” reports Scientific American.
“Human memory was never meant to call up all things…but rather to explore the richness of exclusion, of absence,” writes Michael Harris.
“In the olden days of, I guess the 80s, you just had to avoid [your ex]…Just stay home and unplug the phone. Phones go everywhere now. The Internet goes everywhere,” laments Jaimie Eubanks on Thought Catalog.
A new app, Shryne, offers to curate your exes. That Facebook conversation where your undergrad crush first called you cute? That Gmail chat where you sensed the knowing chill of an inevitable breakup? Shryne will jelly these encounters for you and store them: sanitized for future consumption. Dig into them at dinner parties or poetry sessions. Mine them for laughter or pain. Keep love as a handy transcript, tucked into a Kate Spade case.
Who would have thought that our future would take this shape: an archive. An easier way to fling ourselves into the past.
Exhibit B: Facebook photo of a man looking sideways
The photograph’s subject, Tyler, is wearing a grey hoodie. The hoodie looks soft, because it was soft. He’s holding a Lucky Lager and looking over at something that’s cropped out of the picture.
Insider info: he’s looking at me. I am present in this, his first profile picture. You can see, if you look closely, half an inch of my right arm, which is also clad in a soft grey sweater—mine with white stripes. The two of us were sharing the beer.
I am not tagged in this photo. Just Tyler and Lucky Lager. I am the ghostly plasma of this threesome. Tyler and I were dating in 2007, when Facebook was taking off and both of us started our accounts. This picture is one of the first examples of my presence manifesting in a boyfriend’s online life. It is the public braiding of two images.
Not represented in the photo, but implied: all the expected milestones of a Facebook relationship. Wondering whether we should make it “Facebook official.” Sending each other virtual gifts. Then, my public attempts to keep his favour (complimenting pictures, posting jokes to his wall), to not become the thing cropped out of his photos. And finally, the evenings I spent creeping his page to see which high-cheekboned friends were hiding there, lurking between posts about his band.
I should note that my creeping never stopped. And it’s not just limited to Tyler, it extends to my other exes, whom I examine regularly as if it constitutes some strange brand of online hygiene. I check on them all, like children. They are playing in the yard, getting jobs as copywriters and software developers, making friends with young women who have creative wardrobes and wry Twitter skills. I watch as these women “like” my exes’ pictures and begin showing up frequently in their feeds. I nod with approval. I want to make sure the exes are all home at a reasonable hour, without dirt on their jeans.
Is the internet changing the way we remember love?
Facebook—that cunning self-starter—has taken the past into its own hands. It now recycles content you’d nearly forgotten, bringing last year’s memories into this morning. Tyler’s profile picture? I remembered it during Facebook’s “post your first profile picture” trend, when everyone was making light of their old hairdos and photo faces. Meanwhile Facebook’s Timeline compiles events and statuses into annual Year in Review videos. Twitter has made throwbacks a weekly tradition. Spotify has algorithmed puppy love, tossing out songs that rip a space-time tunnel to your junior high crush.
These journeys can be painful. A recent article on The Verge examined cases where Facebook’s Timehop feature resurfaced difficult memories—a house fire, a loved one who’d since died. “Not every memory needs to be rehashed,” said Nick Forbes, who was reminded of his friend’s suicide.
In this way, the internet makes us aware of an expertise we’d perhaps doubted: the ability to navigate our past. We are conscientious time travellers. We look out for ourselves when we ruminate. We do not dig where we might hit a powerline.
But Facebook can’t feel pain and so, risks burning its hand. We are burnt by proxy; it holds us to the heat. There, we confront the troubling accuracy of evidence: the passive aggressive conversations we’d once considered civil, the transparently grand gestures that seemed suave in the moment. It can be tempting to shield ourselves, to make a rose-tinted burrow of our preferred narrative. But this zap back to the past can also be exhilarating: a wound reopened with a rush of adrenaline. Suddenly, we are contemplative. We are blowing off work to rehash and reassess, comparing the internet’s recollection with our own. It is a new way of performing an age-old process: introspection. In the aftermath of love, we interrogate the ether: Did I know you?
Exhibit C: Correspondence
I have preserved, without intention, the flirtations of my last four boyfriends. They are distributed across PlentyofFish, OkCupid, and Facebook.
“So we should talk sometime. I’ve decided. Mostly because I think you could make a wicked mix CD.”
“I've looked into some kind of public trending data for glittery vampires and OH MY GOD.”
“Would it be out of line for me to call you 'quite charming'?”
Sometimes I worry about correspondence in the modern age. Where are my generation’s letters? Where are our shoeboxes filled with loving handwriting? How will our descendants know whether we consistently crossed our t’s?
It’s easy to forget that online correspondence is still correspondence. That it has the essential quality of correspondence—dialogue—even if that quality is now put through a digital filter. My flirtatious correspondences with ex-boyfriends? They’re time capsules. I see, in each of them, trust beginning to show through the words like muscle, as two people nervously train for the big first date. I see confidence developing, and—in much later messages—the failure of that confidence to become permanence. It’s fascinating. Retrospect allows a reverence we can never access in the moment: the ability to appreciate something as a whole.
If I’m honest with myself, I’ve always courted this way. Even thinking back to Alex, the high school boyfriend with the moist towelette, I recall that he and I first started chatting via email, sending Hotmail missives filled with dramatic poetry. We grew into each other as we grew into grammar, brushing up our vocabularies to impress. We loved carefully because we had to write it down.
Maybe I’m not qualified to say whether the internet has changed the way we experience and preserve love, because I’ve never fallen in love without the internet. Even the moments I’ve considered silent, sacrosanct, were still connected to the dial tone—later vibrations on the same frequency.
But even if I’m not qualified, I still wonder: is the internet changing the way we remember love?
What if it is, and it all disappears one day? What if Facebook zips off the planet like “See ya—wouldn’t want to be ya!” and we’re all just left standing here with our slim little memories? Maybe the departure would take the form of a money grab: “You have thirty days to send $100, 000 if you want to download your memories.” Maybe the great wipeout would be a philosophical protest—an act of sabotage by Anonymous or the social networks themselves, warning against complacency and blind trust. All those who had already backed up their content—already downloaded their travel albums in an act of nostalgic paranoia—would breathe easy, thankful for their preparations.
All us others? We’d feel a global tidal wave as a billion stomachs sank, that anvil-in-gut feeling of having left your passport on an airplane. We would be terrified that we lost the truth along with the details.
Theory: there would be reminiscence sessions. People would rent out community centres. We would gather as if at a wake, and share what best we could.
“Are you going to the memory-share for when Candice first met Sean?”
“Was that during triathlon training?”
“No, that party in Jasper.”
“I don’t know…I wasn’t planning to.”
“Come on. Every bit counts.”
When you got there, glum acquaintances would be commiserating over crudites. “I wore the polka dot dress,” someone would offer. “I wore blue,” another person would add. That would spark something. The room would warm with cautious laughter. One thing would trigger another. And like a barn, you’d raise the memory, lanterns burning into the night.
We would just stop caring about the details of how we met.
We would just stop caring, because caring would not be an option.
Exhibit D: “Since October 2011”
October 2011 is the date Facebook believes I became engaged. My fiancé and I messed up the process of changing our relationship status, so the date we began our relationship (October 2011) is listed as the date we finalized it (which was really November 2014).
Looking back at this, I remembered an early conversation with my fiancé. We’d been dating about four months when we had the Big Facebook Talk, which went something like this:
“I don’t really believe in changing my Facebook relationship status,” I said.
“Oh good. Me neither.”
“It’s just too much weird pressure. And then if something happens, you have to, you know, undo it.”
“And then deal with everyone’s comments when they see you’ve broken up.”
“Let’s just not change it. Unless things get really serious.”
“Deal. We won’t change it unless things are basically permanent.”
When I was accepted to grad school two years later, my fiancé and I prepared ourselves for two years of long-distance. I asked him if we could begin a Facebook relationship, “so people will know I’m spoken for.”
This was my way of making things permanent. My fiancé knew what entering a Facebook relationship meant, for us. Facebook meant for keeps.
So in a sense, I made the initial proposal. Two years before my fiancé and I became engaged, officially, I gave him a promise ring in the form of a status update. Facebook wants me to remember that moment: not the date of the engagement itself, but the process of declaring our relationship publicly online. It wants me to take credit for past boldness.
Is the internet changing the way we remember love?
Consider this: public love is not monogamous. It is not shared between only two people, but distributed across dozens of gazes and perspectives, each with their own degree of access to the relationship, and their own insights to offer towards its understanding. Perhaps things were always this way—we never loved in a vacuum. We shared stories and details with our nearest and dearest, even before the web. But now, we can share our love instantly and widely. Dozens of people know our anniversary. An old acquaintance “likes” our date night photo. We invite near-strangers into our smallest moments.
There are two ways to think about this collective romantic memory:
Think about relationships you’ve seen grow and wither online. I’m Facebook friends with a man I went on one date with, eight years ago. Since then, I have watched through the screen as he’s loved and lost and loved again. There was the picture of him holding the initial girlfriend’s chocolate lab. The gradual distance between them in photos. The angry statuses after the break-up. The fallow period when his wall sat quiet and hurt. Then a new wave flowing in—a woman with long hair and a badass guitar. He is happy now. He looks happy now.
It’s troubling, in some ways, to have this access. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fear that we’ll lose the essential secrecy of memory. But at the same time, who knows what mystic towelettes that old date of mine has stored away? Who knows what meditative moments he’s spent with an old hair clip or soda can—one form of memory does not replace another. Online memory is an extension, not an extinction. The blood of love is still private, even if the bones are now shared.
So maybe we can gain some comfort from the voyeurism, some artistic satisfaction from other people’s visits to our online museum. Maybe we can believe that someone in the universe has us all figured out, even if they don’t know us, and may never tell us what they’ve discovered. They—this godly they—have looked through the evidence, and they remember our relationship. They remember it finitely, but differently than we do. Did we know each other? Maybe. Maybe these observers knew us too. In their own small way, they knew us, and that’s something, isn’t it? That’s something.
Please note: Names in this piece have been changed